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Geosciences Column: An international effort to understand the hazard risk posed by Nepal’s 2015 Gorkha earthquake

Geosciences Column: An international effort to understand the hazard risk posed by Nepal’s 2015 Gorkha earthquake

Nine months ago the ground in Nepal shook, and it shook hard: on April 25th 2015 the M7.8 Gorkha earthquake struck and was followed by some 250 aftershocks, five of which were greater than M 6.0. The devastation left behind in the aftermath of such an event, and how to coordinate disaster-relief efforts in a vast, mountainous region, is difficult to imagine. Yet, this December at the 2015 AGU Fall Meeting, I came a little closer.

At the meeting I attended the press conference ‘Future Himalayan seismic hazards: Insights from earthquakes in Nepal’. It focused, mainly, on the outcomes of two research papers published in Science on the role that both past and the recent Gorkha earthquakes can play in triggering quake-induce landslides. The findings of the research were covered widely by the media.

I was struck, not only by those findings, but by the personal accounts of the scientists who’d seen the devastation left behind by the earthquake. But more still, what really caught my attention, was the multinational effort and collaboration that went into the research.

Before-and-after photographs of Nepal’s Langtang Valley showing the near-complete destruction of Langtang village due to a massive landslide caused by the 2015 Gorkha earthquake. Photos from 2012 (pre-quake) and 2015 (post-quake) by David Breashears/GlacierWorks. Distributed via NASA Goddard on Flickr.

Before-and-after photographs of Nepal’s Langtang Valley showing the near-complete destruction of Langtang village due to a massive landslide caused by the 2015 Gorkha earthquake. Photos from 2012 (pre-quake) and 2015 (post-quake) by David Breashears/GlacierWorks. Distributed via
NASA Goddard on Flickr. Click to enlarge.

After the press conference I met with Dalia Kirschbaum of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Centre and Dan Shugar of the University of Washington Tacoma, two of the co-authors of the 2015 Gorkha earthquake paper, to discuss this aspect of the research in more detail.

Given the vast geographical area over which the Gorkha earthquake had caused damage, as well as the hard-to-access mountainous terrain, the team used satellite imagery to map earthquake-induced landslides. They also monitored the stability of the region’s moraine dammed glacial lakes, prone to outburst following earthquakes due to the failure of moraine damns.

When a large scale disaster occurs the International Charter on Space and Major Disasters allows for the dedicated collection of space data to contribute towards humanitarian and charitable efforts in areas affected by natural or man-made disasters. Following the Gorkha earthquake, Nepal called for the activation of the charter.

Following Nepal activating the Charter, satellite imagery was provided by NASA, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency, the China Space Agency, as well as private organisations such as DigitalGlobe, to name but a few.

This project was “different to what we had seen in the past in terms of international collaboration,” Dalia told me during our conversation.

A group of nine nations, coordinated by the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space, began assessing the imagery provided and mapping the earthquake-induced geohazards, including landslides. In the first instance the data was used to identify potentially hazardous situations where communities and infrastructure might be at risk. This was followed by an effort to build a landslide inventory, which could provide information about the distribution, character, geomorphological, lithological and tectonic controls which govern the occurrence of earthquake triggered landslides.

An international volunteer geohazards team mapped landslides triggered by the 2015 Nepal Gorkha earthquake and its aftershocks. The landslides were mapped using a range of different satellite products. Credit: Landslide mapping team/NASA-GSFC. Distributed via NASA Goddard on Flickr.

An international volunteer geohazards team mapped landslides triggered by the 2015 Nepal Gorkha earthquake and its aftershocks. The landslides were mapped using a range of different satellite products. Credit: Landslide mapping team/NASA-GSFC. Distributed via NASA Goddard on Flickr.

Simultaneously, scientists from the British Geological Survey and Durham University also began to build a database of known geohazards in the region. The data was shared between the two working groups.

“For no other major earthquakes have landslide inventories come from such a diverse range of datasets and organisations,” explained Dalia.

Neither had emergency remote sensing been undertaken so quickly.

I was interested in why the Nepal earthquakes in particular had inspired this, so far unique – but hopefully not the last – diverse international collaboration to better understand earthquake-induced geohazards.

Dan Shugar thinks it was because so many geoscientists have a deep personal connection with Nepal. Durham University scientists, for example, take geology students to the region on an annual field trip.

“Everybody loves Nepal! The nature of the country really lent itself to people wanting to help,” he added.

Field visit identifies light damage at Tsho (lake) Rolpa. Post-earthquake image of Tsho Rolpa appears identical to its appearance shortly before the earthquake. Two areas of fractures —believed formed by the May 12 2015 aftershock— were observed on the engineered part of the end moraine from a helicopter during an inspection undertaken by the U.S. Geological Survey at Tsho Rolpa. Photos from 27 May by Brian Collins/USGS, courtesy of USAID-OFDA (Office of Foreign Disaster Aid). Distributed via NASA Goddard on Flickr.

Field visit identifies light damage at Tsho (lake) Rolpa. Post-earthquake image of Tsho Rolpa appears identical to its appearance shortly before the earthquake. Two areas of fractures —believed formed by the May 12 2015 aftershock— were observed on the engineered part of the end moraine from a helicopter during an inspection undertaken by the U.S. Geological Survey at Tsho Rolpa. Photos from 27 May by Brian Collins/USGS, courtesy of USAID-OFDA (Office of Foreign Disaster Aid). Distributed via
NASA Goddard on Flickr.

For many, including Dan, it rose from a need to contribute to the humanitarian effort. Despite having trained as a geomorphologist and actively researching Alpine natural hazards, prior to the Gorkha earthquake he’d not had the opportunity to apply his knowledge and expertise to help others. It allowed him to offer help in the same way a medic might do by flying out to the scene of a disaster and offering medical expertise and treating the injured.

For Dalia, the positive impact made in the Nepal crisis by the international effort of quickly gathering, sharing and interpreting Earth observation data, was an important driver in keeping her linked to the project.

This effort is now seeing a life beyond the Nepal earthquakes. NASA satellites had previously been involved in the acquisition of data sets to aid in humanitarian crisis, such as in the aftermath of hurricanes. The successful approach taken during the Nepal earthquakes will now help coalesce NASA’s disaster programme and how NASA will respond to natural hazards in the future. It is leading to a more formalised disaster response programme.

The lessons learnt from the Nepal earthquake are ongoing, with much still being done in the scientific realms to better understand the hazards posed by the tectonics of the region, and associated geohazards triggered by the earthquakes. Many of the international collaborations fostered during the crisis are ongoing and will hopefully mean an improved response to future natural hazards in the region.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer. With many thanks to Dalia Kirschbaum and Dan Shugar.

References

Schwanghart, W., Bernhart, A., Stolle, A., et. al.,: Repeated catastrophic valley infill following medieval earthquakes in the Nepal Himalaya, Science, vol. 351, 6269, 147-150, doi: 10.1126/science.aac9865, 2016.

Kargel, J. S., Leonard, G. J., Shugar, D.H., et al.,: Geomorphic and geologic controls of geohazards induced by Nepal’s 2015 Gorkha earthquake, Science,vol. 351, 6269, 147-150, doi: 10.1126/science.aac8353, 2016.

Unfortunately, some of the publications referenced in this post are close access – but other links included in this post, as well as the post itself, hopefully convey the overall message of the research.

The best of Imaggeo in 2015: in pictures

The best of Imaggeo in 2015: in pictures

Last year we prepared a round-up blog post of our favourite Imaggeo pictures, including header images from across our social media channels and Immageo on Mondays blog posts of 2014. This year, we want YOU to pick the best Imaggeo pictures of 2015, so we compiled an album on our Facebook page, which you can still see here, and asked you to cast your votes and pick your top images of 2015.

From the causes of colourful hydrovolcanism, to the stunning sedimentary layers of the Grand Canyon, through to the icy worlds of Svaalbard and southern Argentina, images from Imaggeo, the EGU’s open access geosciences image repository, have given us some stunning views of the geoscience of Planet Earth and beyond. In this post, we highlight the best images of 2015 as voted by our Facebook followers.

Of course, these are only a few of the very special images we highlighted in 2015, but take a look at our image repository, Imaggeo, for many other spectacular geo-themed pictures, including the winning images of the 2015 Photo Contest. The competition will be running again this year, so if you’ve got a flare for photography or have managed to capture a unique field work moment, consider uploading your images to Imaggeo and entering the 2016 Photo Contest.

Different degrees of oxidation during hydrovolcanism, followed by varying erosion rates on Lanzarote produce brilliant colour contrasts in the partially eroded cinder cone at El Golfo. Algae in the lagoon add their own colour contrast, whilst volcanic bedding and different degrees of welding in the cliff create interesting patterns.

 Grand Canyon . Credit: Credit: Paulina Cwik (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Grand Canyon . Credit: Credit: Paulina Cwik (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The Grand Canyon is 446 km long, up to 29 km wide and attains a depth of over a mile 1,800 meters. Nearly two billion years of Earth’s geological history have been exposed as the Colorado River and its tributaries cut their channels through layer after layer of rock while the Colorado Plateau was uplifted. This image was submitted to imaggeo as part of the 2015 photo competition and theme of the EGU 2015 General Assembly, A Voyage Through Scales.

Water reflection in Svalbard. Credit: Fabien Darrouzet (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Water reflection in Svalbard. Credit: Fabien Darrouzet (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Svalbard is dominated by glaciers (60% of all the surface), which are important indicators of global warming and can reveal possible answers as to what the climate was like up to several hundred thousand years ago. The glaciers are studied and analysed by scientists in order to better observe and understand the consequences of the global warming on Earth.

Waved rocks of Antelope slot canyon - Page, Arizona by Frederik Tack (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu).

Waved rocks of Antelope slot canyon – Page, Arizona by Frederik Tack (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu).

Antelope slot canyon is located on Navajo land east of Page, Arizona. The Navajo name for Upper Antelope Canyon is Tsé bighánílíní, which means “the place where water runs through rocks.”
Antelope Canyon was formed by erosion of Navajo Sandstone, primarily due to flash flooding and secondarily due to other sub-aerial processes. Rainwater runs into the extensive basin above the slot canyon sections, picking up speed and sand as it rushes into the narrow passageways. Over time the passageways eroded away, making the corridors deeper and smoothing hard edges in such a way as to form characteristic ‘flowing’ shapes in the rock.

 Just passing Just passing. Credit: Camille Clerc (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Just passing. Credit: Camille Clerc (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

An archeological site near Illulissat, Western Greenland On the back ground 10 000 years old frozen water floats aside precambrian gneisses.

Sarez lake, born from an earthquake. Credit: Alexander Osadchiev (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Sarez lake, born from an earthquake. Credit: Alexander Osadchiev (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Beautiful Sarez lake was born in 1911 in Pamir Mountains. A landslide dam blocked the river valley after an earthquake and a blue-water lake appeared at more than 3000 m over sea level. However this beauty is dangerous: local seismicity can destroy the unstable dam and the following flood will be catastrophic for thousands Tajik, Afghan, and Uzbek people living near Mugrab, Panj and Amu Darya rivers below the lake.

Badlands national park, South Dakota, USA. Credit: Iain Willis (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Badlands national park, South Dakota, USA. Credit: Iain Willis (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Layer upon layer of sand, clay and silt, cemented together over time to form the sedimentary units of the Badlands National Park in South Dakota, USA. The sediments, delivered by rivers and streams that criss-crossed the landscape, accumulated over a period of millions of years, ranging from the late Cretaceous Period (67 to 75 million years ago) throughout to the Oligocene Epoch (26 to 34 million years ago). Interbedded greyish volcanic ash layers, sandstones deposited in ancient river channels, red fossil soils (palaeosols), and black muds deposited in shallow prehistoric seas are testament to an ever changing landscape.

Late Holocene Fever. Credit: Christian Massari (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Late Holocene Fever. Credit: Christian Massari (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Mountain glaciers are known for their high sensitivity to climate change. The ablation process depends directly on the energy balance at the surface where the processes of accumulation and ablation manifest the strict connection between glaciers and climate. In a recent interview in the Gaurdian, Bernard Francou, a famous French glaciologist, has explained that the glacier depletion in the Andes region has increased dramatically in the second half of the 20th century, especially after 1976 and in recent decades the glacier recession moved at a rate unprecedented for at least the last three centuries with a loss estimated between 35% and 50% of their area and volume. The picture shows a huge fall of an ice block of the Perito Moreno glacier, one of the most studied glaciers for its apparent insensitivity to the recent global warming.

 Nærøyfjord: The world’s most narrow fjord . Credit: Sarah Connors (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Nærøyfjord: The world’s most narrow fjord . Credit: Sarah Connors (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Feast your eyes on this Scandinavia scenic shot by Sarah Connors, the EGU Policy Fellow. While visiting Norway, Sarah, took a trip along the world famous fjords and was able to snap the epic beauty of this glacier shaped landscape. To find out more about how she captured the shot and the forces of nature which formed this region, be sure to delve into this Imaggeo on Mondays post.

The August 2015 header images was this stunning image by Kurt Stuewe, which shows the complex geology of the Helvetic Nappes of Switzerland. You can learn more about the tectonic history of The Alps by reading this blog post on the EGU Blogs.

 (A)Rising Stone. Credit: Marcus Herrmann (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

(A)Rising Stone. Credit: Marcus Herrmann (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The September 2015 header images completes your picks of the best images of 2015. (A)Rising Stone by Marcus Herrmann,  pictures a chain of rocks that are part of the Schrammsteine—a long, rugged group of rocks in the Elbe Sandstone Mountains located in Saxon Switzerland, Germany.

If you pre-register for the 2016 General Assembly (Vienna, 17 – 22 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/.

Geoscience hot topics – The finale: Understanding planet Earth

Geoscience hot topics – The finale: Understanding planet Earth

What are the most interesting, cutting-edge and compelling research topics within the scientific areas represented in the EGU divisions? Ground-breaking and innovative research features yearly at our annual General Assembly, but what are the overarching ideas and big research questions that still remain unanswered? We spoke to some of our division presidents and canvased their thoughts on what the current Earth, ocean and planetary hot topics will be.

Because there are too many to fit in a single post we’ve brought some of them together in a series of posts which will tackle three main areas. The first post focused on the Earth’s past and its origin, while the second post focused on the Earth as it is now and what its future looks like. Today’s is the final post of the series and will explore where our understanding of the Earth and its structure is still lacking. We’d love to know what the opinions of the readers of GeoLog are on this topic too, so we welcome and encourage lively discussion in the comment section!

A new, modern, era for research

That we have great understanding of the Earth, its structure and the processes which govern how the environment works, is a given. At the same time, so much is still unknown, unclear and uncertain, that there are plenty of research avenues which can help build upon, and further, our current understanding of the Earth system.

By Camelia.boban (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Big Data’s definition illustrated with text. Credit: Camelia.boban (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

As research advances, so do the technologies which allow scientist to collect, store and use data. Crucially, the amount of data which can be collected increases too, opening avenues not only for scientists to carry out research, but for the wider population to be involved in scientific research too: the age of Big Data and Citizen Science is born.

The structure of the Earth

Despite a long history of study, including geological maps, studies of the structure of the Alps, and the advent of analogue models some 200 years ago, there is much left to learn about how geological processes interact and shape our Earth.

Some important unanswered questions in the realm of Tectonics and Structural Geology (TS) include:

“Why do some passive margins have high surface topography (take Norway, or Southeastern Brazil as an example) even millions of years after continental break-up? How does subduction, the process by which a tectonic plate slides under another, begin? And how does the community adapt to new research methods and ever growing datasets?” highlights Susanne Buiter, TS Division.

One important problem is that of inheritance and what role it plays in how plate tectonics work. Scientists have known, since the theory was first proposed in the 1950s (although it only became broadly accepted in the 1970s), that our planet is active: its outer shell is divided into tectonic plates which slide, collide, pull away and sink past one another. During their life-time the tectonic plates interact with surface process and eventually flow into the mantle below. This implies that any new tectonic processes will take place in material that carries a history.

“It is increasingly recognised that tectonic events do not act on homogenous, pristine materials, but more likely on crust that is cross-cut by old shear zones, incorporates different lithologies and which may have inherited heat from previous deformation events (such as folding),” explains Susanne.

So the key is: what is the impact of historical inheritance on tectonic events? Can old structures be reactivated and if so, when are they reactivated and when not? Do the tectonic processes control the resulting structures or is it the other way around?

Seismology too can shed more light on how we understand Earth processes and the structure of the planet.

“An emerging field of research is seismic super-resolution: a promising technique which allows imaging of the fine-scale subsurface Earth structure in more detail than has been possible ever before,” explains Paul Martin Mai, President of the Seismology (SM) Division.

The methodology has applications not only for our understanding of the structure and process which take place on Earth, but also for the characterisation of fuel reservoirs and identification of potential underground storage facilities. That being said, the technique is still in its infancy and more research, particularly applied to ‘real’ geological settings is needed.

Understanding natural hazards

The reasons to pursue further understanding in this area are diverse and wide-ranging: amongst the most relevant to society is being able to better comprehend and predict the processes which lead to natural disasters.

Earthquake 1920 (?). Credit: Konstantinos Kourtidis (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Earthquake 1920 (?). Credit: Konstantinos Kourtidis (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

It goes without saying that, due to their destructive nature, earthquakes are a topic of continued cross-disciplinary scientific research. Generating more detailed images of the Earth’s structure, using seismic super-resolution for instance, can also improve our understanding of how and why earthquakes occur, as well as helping to determine large-scale fault behaviour.

And what if we could crowd source data to help us understand earthquakes better too? LastQuake is an online tool, operated via Twitter and an app for smartphones which allows users to record real-time data regarding earthquakes. The results are uploaded to the European-Mediterranean Seismological Centre (EMSC) website where they offer up-to-data information about ongoing shake events. It was used by over 8000 people during the April 2015 Nepal earthquakes to collect eyewitness observation, including geo-located pictures, testimonies and comments, in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake.

In this setting, citizens become scientists too. They contribute data, by acquiring it themselves, which can be used to answer research questions. In the case of LastQuake, the use of the data is immediate and can contribute towards easing rescue operations and alerting citizens of dangerous areas (for instance where buildings are at risk of collapse) providing a two-way communication tool.

Global temperatures and climate change

It is not only earthquakes that threaten communities. Just as destructive can be extreme weather events, such as typhoons, cyclones, hurricanes, storm surges, severe rainfalls leading to flooding or droughts. With the increased frequency and destructiveness of these events being linked to climate change understanding global temperature fluctuations becomes more important than ever.

Flooded Mekong. Credit: Anna Lourantou (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Flooded Mekong. Credit: Anna Lourantou (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Over periods of months, years and decades global temperatures fluctuate.

“Up to decades, the natural tendency to return to a basic state is an expression of the atmosphere’s memory that is so strong that we are still feeling the effects of century-old fluctuations,” says Shaun Lovejoy, President of the Nonlinear Processes Division (NP).

Harnessing the record of past-temperature fluctuations, as recorded by the atmosphere, can provide a more accurate way to produce seasonal forecasts and long-term climate predictions than traditional climate models and should be explored further.

Geoscience hot topics

Be it studying the Earth’s history, how to sustainably develop our communities, or simply understanding the basic principles which govern how our planet – and others – operates, the scope for avenues of research in the geosciences is vast. Moreover, the advent of new technologies, data acquisition and processing techniques allow geoscientists to explore more complex problems in greater detail than was ever possible before. It’s an exciting time for geoscientific research.

By Laura Roberts Artal in collaboration with EGU Division Presidents

Geoscience hot topics – Part II: the Earth as it is now and what its future looks like

Geoscience hot topics – Part II: the Earth as it is now and what its future looks like

What are the most interesting, cutting-edge and compelling research topics within the scientific areas represented in the EGU divisions? Ground-breaking and innovative research features yearly at our annual General Assembly, but what are the overarching ideas and big research questions that still remain unanswered? We spoke to some of our division presidents and canvased their thoughts on what the current Earth, ocean and planetary hot topics will be.

Because there are too many to fit in a single post we’ve brought some of them together in a series of posts which will tackle three main areas. The first post focused on the Earth’s past and its origin, while today’s post will focus on the present Earth and its future. The final post of the series will explore where our understanding of the Earth and its structure is still lacking. We’d love to know what the opinions of the readers of GeoLog are on this topic too, so we welcome and encourage lively discussion in the comments!

Sustainable development

As populations across the globe continue to grow, geoscientists have a key role to play in sustainable development. The demands placed on planet Earth to supply our societies with anything from drinking water to food and energy are ever rising. Managing these resources in a way that ensures we can meet the needs of current and future generations is one of the biggest challenges faced by scientists and policy makers worldwide.

Humanity’s pursuit of a sustainable future, where our activities do not contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere (something which has be high on policymakers agenda’s recently) will open new, important, avenues of research. Goals need to be achieved so that food, energy and water resources are available for future generations and methods must be found to exploit resources in a way that minimises the impact on the environment.

Producing fuel for a growing population
The boundaries of technology and our knowledge of where and how resources can be exploited will be pushed as the demands for energy increase. Traditional oil and gas resources will continue to be exploited, but new emerging technologies and fuel sources will mean a shift to lesser known research areas.

Angelo De Santis, President of the Earth Magnetism and Rock Physics (EMRP) Division adds that: “Such fields as rock physics, geomagnetism and rock magnetism will have a role to play in future resource exploration.”

Perusing the programme of the 2016 General Assembly gives a flavour of some of the emerging avenues of research in this field. Take for instance deep geothermal reservoirs: this little know source of renewable energy provides an alternative to conventional fuel sources, with the potential to reduce fossil-fuel consumption as well as curbing greenhouse-gas emissions. Yet, the understanding of how to engineer the reservoirs so that they remain productive and safe over long time-scales is still being developed, and having better handle on the rock physics and mechanics of the reservoirs would help in this regard.

"Geothermal energy methods". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Geothermal energy methods“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Ensuring the integrity of any reservoir be it conventional or unconventional, requires collaboration. Seismology has a large part to play here too. Away from the well-known and exciting work being carried out on understanding earthquakes, the field of ‘ambient noise’ seismic data has the potential to revolutionise our understanding of Earth dynamics and can be applied to monitoring changes in zones of natural and induced (minor tremors caused by human activity) seismicity in oil & gas reservoirs and also geothermal fields, highlights P. Martin Mai, President of the Seismology (SM) Division.

In seismology, ambient noise, or “background noise” recorded on seismic instruments refers to the seismic energy that is continuously generated by various natural (e.g. ocean waves, wind, etc) and man-made (traffic, industrial activities) processes. Classically, seismology wants to avoid any noise contamination of seismic recordings, as the noise masks or even destroys the desired “deterministic” signals from earthquakes or exploration-driven seismic excitations. However, experimental and theoretical work over the last ~10 yrs has shown that the mathematically predicted relation between “noise” and the Earth elastic properties can be applied to use “noise” for making inference about Earth structure. “Ambient noise” studies in seismology have been used, for instance, to infer properties of the Earth crust and how it may change on small scales (like in earthquake fault zones) over time, but ‘ambient noise tomography’ also helps to unravel Earth properties in the upper mantle (down to ~150 km depth). Research in ambient-noise seismology requires dense seismic recording networks that continuously record the subtle movements of the ground. Advanced processing and interpretation techniques then allow to also, for instance, monitor the processes within, and thus the state, or geothermal or oil & gas reservoirs.

Raw materials

 A new rural landscape in Irpinia. Credit: Sabina Porfido (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

A new rural landscape in Irpinia. Credit: Sabina Porfido (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

According to Chris Juhlin, President of Energy, Resources and Environment (ERE) Division, it will be crucial for scientists in this field not only to focus on establishing how energy can be produced in a way that will continue to allow societies to live comfortably, but also establish where the resources to produce and supply energy will come from.

The advantages of exploiting resources, such as solar, wind, geothermal energy and nuclear energy over fossil fuels are clear: their emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere are limited. That being said, an often overlooked fact is that they still require natural resources in order to operate.

Juhlin uses wind turbines as an example to illustrate the point: “Wind turbines require significant amounts of rare earth metals, as well as steel, to be built. These metals need to be mined and the mining operation produces CO2.”

Both mining of metals and storage of nuclear waste require that sophisticated geological, geochemical and geophysical surveying methods are available. Not only that, when finding and choosing new locations to mine for resources and store waste, looking at the bigger picture is also important. How these human activities will affect the ecosystems in which they take place will take on greater significance as the loss of habitats and biomes increases.

Juhlin emphasises that: “It is important to understand how a decision at local level may affect the energy balance on a global level.”

Defining a new geological epoch – The Anthropocene

That humans will leave their mark on Earth is undeniable. Human kind has already caused extinctions, polluted oceans and the atmosphere, as well as influenced land use and biodiversity. But pin-pointing the exact time at which our actions became a major geological agent is a source of heated debate.

Traditionally, new epochs are defined by an abrupt change in the chemistry of rock strata which signifies the occurrence of a major geological or palaeontological event. However, in the case of defining the age of humans, the Anthropocene, the lack of a rock record makes applying this traditional approach difficult.

Nevertheless, since it was introduced in 1980s and popularised in the past decade or so, the notion of the Anthropocene epoch has been gaining momentum and opened up further research questions.

Helmut Weissert, President of the Stratigraphy, Sedimentology, and Palaeontology (SSP) Division, says that comparing the role humans have played versus past natural variations is becoming increasingly important. Take an example: what role have humans played in accelerated soil erosion vs. natural variations? Equally, what role has humankind played in affecting the global biogeochemical cycles? By comparing current changes with natural changes recorded in marine and lake sediments we may better understand the role humans have played in shaping the modern Earth.

An exotic solution?

The scientific consensus is that in order to minimise our impact on the planet, while at the same time moving towards zero net emissions of greenhouse gases by the second half of this century, a combination of approaches are needed. While renewable resources and nuclear energy will provide energy which has minor contributions to greenhouse-gas emissions, it is just as important to reduce and find ways to deal with emissions from burning fossil fuels (think carbon capture and storage).

Hot_Topics2_cloudseeding.png

Sketch illustrating the process of cloud seeding. Cloud seeding by DooFi. Distributed via Wikimedia

Geoengineering might provide a more exotic solution to the problem. The premise behind it is to use technology to counter the effects of a warming climate. Proposed solutions include reflecting sunlight into space to cool the planet, cloud seeding, scrubbing CO2 out of the atmosphere, … But at this stage, the majority are deemed unrealistic; not to mention that there is an ongoing ethical debate as to whether they should be used at all and that the consequences of their implementation are also largely unclear

So it seems, the presence of human kind on Earth has paved the way for an astonishing period of research, not only in the geosciences but also in other fields, fuelling an exciting opportunity for cross-disciplinary investigation. And the time is most certainly now, if we are to minimise the mark we leave on the planet while at the same time ensuring a sustainable future for generations to come.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer in collaboration with EGU Division Presidents

Next time, in the Geosciences hot topics short series, we’ll be looking at our understanding of the Earth as we know it now and how we might be able to adapt to the future.

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