GeoLog

Stratigraphy, Sedimentology and Palaeontology

Light years from home – a geologist’s tale

Light years from home – a geologist’s tale

In a departure from the usual posts we feature on the blog, today Conor Purcell (a freelance science writer) brings you a thought provoking science fiction piece. Grab a drink and dive into this geology inspired adventure!

“It’s typical geology for a rocky planet” K reported. “Captured beneath the ocean at its northern pole, the core is a mix of metamorphic and sedimentary rock, with sand and fossilized organisms of the non-intelligent form. Nothing unusual.”

“We should use our new systems for this analysis,” It thought to itself. “Best to begin with a rocky planet.” K was the collective thinking entity of its group, a unified consortium of representatives now located across interstellar space: their task to find intelligent life beyond itself.

Here, on the orbiting cube, lying lengthways in front of K, and secured within the hold of the onboard core analyser, was a long cylindrical section – a core – of rock and mud which had been excavated from the planet below. K was now beginning the routine inspection performed on each of the cores acquired across the surveyed planets.

“Inspect all elements and produce time-series of environmental parameters relevant for the planet” K commanded itself.

It was then that something unusual triggered a notification in its Thought Centre – something it had never experienced. “What is this?” it asked.

For millennia, K had been searching for evidence of intelligent life on exoplanets beyond its own host star. In earlier times ground based receivers had been constructed and used to scour the endless black sky, and although life had been discovered to exist almost everywhere, without exception it took the form of mindless cellular or multicellular organisms. No trace of another Type 1 civilization had ever been found. Even as K’s technology advanced, observing and measuring the atmospheres of millions of remote planets to seek out the signatures of machine and biological life, and now even visiting those remote worlds, no sign of intelligence had yet been discovered.

What now caught the attention of K’s Thought Centre was a narrow section of fine material which appeared to have been laid down in a remarkably short period of time, during just twenty solar orbits. “This geology is unique,” K thought.

“On a planet that contains layers stacked typically over tens of thousands or millions of years, what kind of mechanism could produce such a pattern?” it asked itself. “A rapid fluvial event could produce something like this” it responded. “But not exactly: the material here is far too fine to be explained by known terrestrial, oceanic or atmospheric forces in the universe,” it thought. K could not explain it.

Far below the orbiting cube on which the analysis was being performed, over extensive distances from the poles to the equatorial belt, the K machines proceeded to core their way across the planet. For a rocky sphere of this size, two hundred cores would be drilled and sampled. The complete process would take a little over one solar orbit.

“What do we think about this anomaly?” K asked itself. “We should compute an age model for the section.”

“The section in question is relatively young, just 2.167 million solar orbits in age” it calculated. “It is wedged at the intersection between two geological epochs, marked by a large (25 degrees Kelvin) and incredibly rapid (300 years) temperature increase across the transition.”

K next extracted a sample from each of the section’s annually laid sediments and instructed itself to begin the weighing of trace elements. Chemical analysis of the ratios of isotopes would spell out a varying signal across time, detailing past temperatures and planetary ice volume. This kind of varying palaeoclimate history had been discovered on planets throughout the galaxy. It was ubiquitous.

But, amazingly, unlike the millions of geological cores previously processed, this short section presented no ordinary signal: the pattern generated by the weight of these trace elements was encrypted.

K had not seen anything like it before and inside its Thought Centre an alert was raised: no signal in the known universe had ever been found encrypted.

“Perform an analysis on the encryption, decipher, and display results,” K commanded.

“The signal has been encrypted using a very basic cypher, and can be unravelled easily.”

The deciphering took just microseconds, and right there and then the signal was laid bare, changing K’s understanding of the universe forever.

After millennia of exploration, believing it was the lone thinking entity in the universe, here was evidence conveying the existence of another intelligence, a message sublimely detailed in the universal language of mathematics. It read:

‘This was once an inhabited place which we called Earth.’

By Conor Purcell Science & Nature Writer with a PhD in Earth Science

Conor Purcell is a Science & Nature Writer with a PhD in Earth Science. He can be found on twitter @ConorPPurcell and some of his other articles at cppurcell.tumblr.com.

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

May 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

In the last couple of weeks of May, the news world was abuzz with the possibility of Donald Trump withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. Though the announcement actually came on June 1st, we’ve chosen to feature it in this round-up as it’s so timely and has dominated headlines throughout May and June.

In withdrawing from the agreement, the United States becomes only one of three countries in rejecting the accord, as this map shows. The implications of the U.S joining Syria and Nicaragua (though, to be clear, their reasons for not signing are hugely different to those which have motivated the U.S withdrawal) in dismissing the landmark agreement have been widely covered in the media.

President Trump’s announcement has drawn widespread condemnation across the financial, political and environmental sectors. Elon Musk, Tesla and SpaceX CEO, was one of many in the business sector to express their criticism of the President’s decision. In response to the announcement, Musk tweeted he was standing down from his duties as adviser to a number of White House councils. While in early May, thirty business CEOs  wrote an open letter published in the Wall Street Journal to express their “strong support for the U.S. remaining in the Paris Climate Agreement.”

In a defiant move, U.S. States (including California, New York and Vermont), cities and business plan to come together to continue to work towards meeting the targets and plans set out by the Paris Agreement. The group, coordinated by former New York City mayor Mark Bloomberg, aims to negotiate with the United Nations to have its contributions accepted to the Agreement alongside those of signatory nations.

“We’re going to do everything America would have done if it had stayed committed,” Bloomberg, said in an interview.

Scientist and learned societies have also been vocal in expressing their criticism of the White House decision. Both Nature and Science collected reactions from researchers around the globe. The EGU, as well as the American Geophysical Union, and many in the broader research community oppose the U.S. President’s decision.

“The EGU is committed to supporting the integrity of its scientific community and the science that it undertakes,” said the EGU’s President, Jonathan Bamber.

For an in-depth round-up of the global reaction take a look at this resource.

What you might have missed

This month’s links you might have missed take us on a journey through the Earth. Let’s start deep in the planet’s interior.

The core generates the Earth’s magnetic field. Periodically, the magnetic field reverses, but what caused it to do so? Well, there are several, competing, ideas which might explain why. Recently, one of them gained a bit more traction. By studying the seismic signals from powerful earthquakes, researchers at the University of Oxford found that regions on top of the Earth’s core sometimes behave like a giant lava lamp. It turns out that blobs of rock periodically rise and fall deep inside our planet. This could affect the magnetic field and cause it to flip.

Meanwhile, at the planet’s surface, the Earth’s outer solid layer (the crust) and upper layer of the molten mantle,  are broken up into a jigsaw of moving plates which pull apart and collide, generating earthquakes, driving volcanic eruptions and raising mountains. But the jury is still out as to when and how plate tectonics started. The Earth is so efficient at recycling and generating new crustal material, through plate tectonics, that only a limited record of very old rocks remains making it very hard to decipher the mystery. A recently published article explores what we know and what yet remains to be discovered when it comes to plate tectonics.

Tectonic plate boundaries. By Jose F. Vigil. USGS [Public domain], distributed by Wikimedia Commons.

Oil, gas, water, metal ores: these are the resources that spring to mind when thinking of commodities which fuel our daily lives. However, there are many others we use regularly, far more often than we realise or care to admit, but which we take for granted. Sand is one of them. In the industrial world it is know as ‘aggregate’ and it is the second most exploited natural resource after water. It is running out. A 2014 United Nations Environment Programme report highlighted that the “mining of sand and gravel greatly exceeds natural renewal rates”.

Links we liked

  • Earth Art takes a whole new meaning when viewed from space. This collection of photographs of natural parks as seen from above is pretty special.
  • This round-up is usually reserved for non-EGU related news stories, but given these interviews with female geoscientists featured in our second most popular tweet of the month, it is definitely worth a share: Conversations on being a women in geoscience – perspectives on what being a female in the Earth sciences.
  • We’ve shared these previously, but they are so great, we thought we’d highlight them again! Jill Pelto, a scientist studying the Antarctic Ice Sheet and an artist, uses data in her watercolous to communicate information about extreme environmental issues to a broad audience.

The EGU story

Temperatures in the Arctic are increasing twice as fast as in the rest of the globe, while the Antarctic is warming at a much slower rate. A new study published in Earth System Dynamics, an EGU open access journal, shows that land height could be a “game changer” when it comes to explaining why temperatures are rising at such different rates in the two regions. Read the full press release for all the details, or check out the brief explainer video, which you can also watch on our YouTube channel.

 

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.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Natural Bridges Monument, Utah, USA

Imaggeo on Mondays: Natural Bridges Monument, Utah, USA

Slowly but surely, the force of water has carved out a beautiful landscape in the sandstones of the Colorado Plateau. Suspended over canyons, naturally formed bridges and arches are the starts of Utah’s first national monument. The geological and modern  history of the region is rich as Kimberly Galvez, a student of the University of Miami, describes below.

This image shows an overview of a portion of the Natural Bridges Monument in Utah, taken from the Colorado Plateau. In the lower center of the picture is the Sipapu Bridge, one of the 3 bridges within the national park.

The dominating sandstone comes from the Permian Cedar Mesa Formation that is part of the Colorado Plateau, a geologic province that extends through southern Utah and northern Arizona, northwest New Mexico, and western Colorado; with geologic units including the Lower Cutler Beds from the Pennsylvanian, Permian Organ Rock and Cedar Mesa Formation, Triassic Chinle and Moenkopi Formations, Jurassic Wingate Sandstone and the Quaternary alluvium.

Due to the regional uplift the Colorado Plateau experienced, meandering rivers progressively cut through the crossbedded sandstone – cross-bedding reflects the transport of sand by a flow of water over a river channel – of the Cedar Mesa Formation forming the bridges, leaving behind the exposed erosional surfaces carved out by the river.

Today, these bridges face many challenges: The region is still seismically active. Earthquake activity could lead to the collapse of (some of) the bridges and other small formations. Due to the low stability of the sandstone from the lack of anchoring from root structures, slope failures and slumps can be quite common and especially in the event of flash floods. Continuous wind patterns increase erosion and alter the exposed surfaces and the structure of the channel is constantly changing due to seasonal rainstorms.  Sediment transport and deposition, caused by streamflow, is a major factor in channel morphology and, therefore, the ecosystem of the Natural Bridges Monument.  The National Park Service constantly monitors the changes and issues that arise.

A final remark: Thanks to the entire group of the 2015 Annual AAPG Student Field Trip for making this photo possible. Members of the CSL – Center for Carbonate Research and the UM Student Chapter of AAPG for funds, and field trip leaders: Gregor Eberli and Donald McNeill.

By Kimberly C. Galvez, University of Miami – RSMAS

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/.

 

April GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from the 2017 General Assembly

April GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from the 2017 General Assembly

This month’s GeoRoundUp is a slight deviation from the norm. Instead of drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels and unique or quirky research featured in the news, we’ve rounded up some of the stories which came out of researcher presented at our General Assembly (which took place last week in Vienna). The traditional format for the column will return in May!

Major story

Artists often draw inspiration from the world around them when composing the scene for a major work of art. Retrospectively trying to understanding the meaning behind the imagery can be tricky.

This is poignantly true for Edvard Munch’s iconic ‘The Scream’. The psychedelic clouds depicted in the 18th Century painting have been attributed to Munch’s inner turmoil and a trouble mental state. Others argue that ash particles strewn in the atmosphere following the 1883 Krakatoa volcanic eruption are the reason for the swirly nature of the clouds represented in the painting.

At last week’s General Assembly, a team of Norwegian researchers presented findings which provide a new explanation for the origin of Munch’s colourful sky (original news item from AFP [Agence France-Presse): mother-of-pearl clouds. These clouds “appear irregularly in the winter stratosphere at high northern latitudes, about 20-30 km above the surface of the Earth,” explains Svein Fikke, lead author of the study, in the conference abstract.

“So far observed mostly in the Scandinavian countries, these clouds are formed of microscopic and uniform particles of ice, orientated into thin clouds. When the sun is below the horizon (before sunrise or after sunset), these clouds are illuminated in a surprisingly vibrant way blazing across the sky in swathes of red, green, blue and silver. They have a distinctive wavy structure as the clouds are formed in the lee-waves behind mountains”, writes Hazel Gibson (EGU General Assembly Press Assistant) in a post published on GeoLog following a press conference at the meeting in Vienna (which you can watch here).

With coverage in just over 200 news items, this story was certainly one of the most popular of the meeting. Read more about the study in the full research paper, out now.

What you might have missed

Also (typically) formed in the downside of mountains and in the conference spotlight were föhn winds. The warm and dry winds have been found to be a contributing factor that weakens ice shelves before a collapse.

Ice shelf collapse has been in the news recently on account of fears of a large crack in the Larsen C Ice Shelf generating a huge iceberg.  Though the exact causes for crack generation on ice shelves remain unclear, new research presented by British Antarctic Survey scientists at the conference in Vienna highlighted that föhn winds accelerate melting at the ice shelf surface.  They also supply water which, as it drains into the cracks, deepens and widens them.

Meanwhile, deep under ocean waters, great gouge marks left behind on the seafloor as ancient icebergs dragged along seabed sediments have been collected into an Atlas of Submarine Glacial Landforms, published by the Geological Society of London. The collection of maps sheds light on the past behaviour of ice and can give clues as to how scientists might expect ice sheets to respond to a changing climate.

Drumlins (elongate hills aligned with the ice flow direction) from the Gulf of Bothnia in the Baltic Sea. Credit: Atlas of Submarine Glacial Landforms/BAS

Closer to the Earth’s surface, groundwater also attracted its fair share of attention throughout the meeting. It’s hardly surprising considering groundwater is one of the greatest resources on the planet, globally supplying approximately 40% of the water used for irrigation of crops and providing drinking water for billions around the world. ‘Fossil’ groundwater, which accumulated 12,000 years ago was once thought to be buried too deep below the Earth’s surface to be under threat from modern contaminants, but a new study presented during the General Assembly has discovered otherwise.

Up to 85% of the water stored in the upper 1 km of the Earth’s outermost rocky layer contains fossil groundwater. After sampling some 10,000 wells, researchers found that up to half contained tritium, a signature of much younger waters. Their presence means that present-day pollutants carried in the younger waters can infiltrate fossil groundwater. The study recommends this risk is considered when managing the use of fossil waters in the future.

Links we liked

News from elsewhere

The spectacular end to the Cassini mission has featured regularly in this month’s bulletins.

During its 13 years in orbit, Cassini has shed light on Saturn’s complex ring system, discovered new moons and taken measurements of the planet’s magnetosphere. On September 15th,  the  mission will end when the probe burns up in Saturn’s atmosphere.

On 22 April, the final close flyby of Saturn’s largest moon, Titan, propelled the Cassini spacecraft across the planet’s main rings and into its Grand Finale series of orbits. This marks the start of the final and most audacious phase of the mission as the spacecraft dives between the innermost rings of Saturn and the outer atmosphere of the planet to explore a region never before visited; the first of 22 ring plane crossings took place on 26 April.You can watch a new movie which shows the view as the spacecraft swooped over Saturn during the dive here.

For an overview of highlights from the mission and updates from the ring-grazing orbits that began in November 2016 watch this webstream from a press conference with European Space Agency scientists at the General Assembly last week.

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.

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