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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)

 

Imaggeo on Mondays: An epic ‘house’ move across the ice

Imaggeo on Mondays: An epic ‘house’ move across the ice

In 2008 the NEEM Deep Ice Core Project was initiated by 14 partner countries in Northwestern Greenland (camp position 77.45°N 51.06°W) with the aim to drill from the very top of the  Greenland ice cap to its base; obtaining  ice from as far back as the last interglacial period- the Eemian – some 130,000 years old.

At the start of the 2008 field season, the NEEM camp consisted of a single heavy-duty tent, some vehicles, and a skiway. Over the summer months, the facilities could host up to 30 researchers at a time. Extra heavy duty tents were built to accommodate everyone comfortably. However to further ease the work of the many researchers who contributed to the project over several years and to create a common space, ‘the dome’ was build. Spread over three stories, the round black building included a kitchen and eating space on the ground floor, a working and relaxing area on the first floor for and a top floor for observing weather conditions before incoming flights.

After three summers of drilling through the icecap, bedrock was reached in 2010 and the Eemian ice was secured.

The 2011 season was spent on surface programs and some drilling into bedrock. Finally, in 2012 the deep ice core drilling project NEEM was terminated and camp was dismantelled.  Most of the heavy equipment was left on the NEEM site with supplies and equipment stored inside the main dome, in two garages, and on seven heavy sleds. The large dome was put on skis with the intention of moving it to the next drilling site, though exactly where was yet to be determined and  funds also needed to be secured.

In 2015, a group of 12 people, including myself, travelled back to the NEEM site. We packed down the the garages and stored them on sledges, we removed 3 years’ worth of accumulated snow (~1.5 m) from the sledges packed in 2012 and from the 45 ton main dome, and finally made the whole lot ready for moving.  Using specialist snowploughs (known as a PistenBully, sponsored by NSF ) we relocated to our new drilling site, EastGRIP at the North East Greenland Ice Stream (NEGIS).

The trip began on Monday 18th May in the afternoon. Progress was slow. By 20.30 the traverse consisting of 8 vehicles had traveled 24 km along the ice flow divide towards the south-east, towing an incredible  143 tonnes worth of equipment, not including the weight of the vehicles themselves.

After an arduous eight day traverse, on 26th May the convoy made the last 53 km of the journey and arrived at EastGRIP in the afternoon. On arrival, the team only had 3000 litres of fuel left, which would have only supported the traverse for one more day. The total route travelled was 449 km.

The focus of the work at the new ice core camp at EastGRIP is different to that of the NEEM project. While the overall aim is to also drill to the bottom of the Greenland ice sheet, this time the goal is to understand the fast flowing ice at NEGIS.

Ice streams, such as NEGIS, are responsible for draining a significant fraction of the ice from the Greenland Ice Sheet. By drilling to the bottom of the ice sheet the project hopes to gain new and fundamental information on ice stream dynamics, thereby improving the understanding of how ice streams will contribute to future sea-level change. The drilled core will also provide a new record of past climatic conditions from the northeastern part of the Greenland Ice Sheet which will be analysed at numerous laboratories worldwide. Similar to NEEM the project has many international partners and is managed by the Centre for Ice and Climate, Denmark with air support carried out by US ski-equipped Hercules aircraft managed through the US Office of Polar Programs, National Science Foundation.

By Helle Astrid Kjær, researcher at the Niels Bohr Institute,  University of Copenhagen

 

Imaggeo is the EGU’s online open access geosciences image repository. All geoscientists (and others) can submit their photographs and videos to this repository and, since it is open access, these images can be used for free by scientists for their presentations or publications, by educators and the general public, and some images can even be used freely for commercial purposes. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. Submit your photos at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/upload/

Imaggeo on Mondays: In the belly of the beast

In the belly of the beast . Credit: Alexandra Kushnir (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Conducting research inside a volcanic crater is a pretty amazing scientific opportunity, but calling that crater home for a week might just be a volcanologist’s dream come true, as Alexandra postdoctoral researcher at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Strasbourg, describes in this week’s Imaggeo on Mondays.

This picture was taken from inside the crater of Mount St Helens, a stratovolcano in Washington State (USA). This particular volcano was made famous by its devastating explosive eruption in 1980, which was triggered by a landslide that removed most of the volcano’s northern flank.

Between 2004 and 2008 Mount St Helens experienced another type of eruption – this time effusive (where lava flowed out of the volcano without any accompanying explosions). Effusive eruptions produce lava flows that can be runny (low-viscosity) like the flows at Kilauea (Hawaii) or much thicker (high viscosity) like at Mount St Helens. Typically, high viscosity lavas can’t travel very far, so they begin to clump up in and around the volcano’s crater forming dome-like structures.  Sometimes, however, the erupting lava can be so rigid that it juts out of the volcano as a column of rock, known as a spine.

The 2004 to 2008 eruption at Mount St Helens saw the extrusion of a series of seven of these spines. At the peak of the eruption, up to 11 meters of rock were extruded per day. As these columns were pushed up and out of the volcanic conduit – the vertical pipe up which magma moves from depth to the surface – they began to roll over, evoking images of whales surfacing for air.

‘Whaleback’ spines are striking examples of exhumed fault surfaces – as these cylinders of rock are pushed out of the volcano their sides grind against the inside of the volcanic conduit in much the same way two sides of a fault zone move and grind past each other. These ground surfaces can provide scientists with a wealth of information about how lava is extruded during eruption. However, spines are generally unstable and tend to collapse after eruption making it difficult to characterize their outer surfaces in detail and, most importantly, safely.

Luckily, Mount St Helens provided an opportunity for a group of researchers to go into a volcanic crater and characterise these fault surfaces. While not all of the spines survived, portions of at least three spines were left intact and could be safely accessed for detailed structural analysis. These spines were encased in fault gouge – an unconsolidated layer of rock that forms when two sides of a fault zone move against one another – that was imprinted with striations running parallel to the direction of extrusion, known as slickensides. These features can give researchers information about how strain is accommodated in the volcanic conduit. The geologist in the photo (Betsy Friedlander, MSc) is measuring the dimensions and orientations of slickensides on the outer carapace of one of the spines; the southern portion of the crater wall can be seen in the background.

Volcanic craters are inherently changeable places and conducting a multi-day field campaign inside one requires a significant amount of planning and the implementation of rigorous safety protocols. But above all else, this type of research campaign requires an acquiescent mountain.

Because a large part of Mount St Helens had been excavated during the 1980 eruption, finding a safe field base inside the crater was possible. Since the 2004-2008 deposits were relatively unstable, the science team set up camp on the more stable 1980-1986 dome away from areas susceptible to rock falls and made the daily trek up the eastern lobe of the Crater Glacier to the 2004-2008 deposits.

Besides being convenient, this route also provides a spectacular tableau of the volcano’s inner structure with its oxidized reds and sulfurous yellows. The punctual peal of rock fall is a reminder of the inherent instability of a volcanic edifice, and the peculiar mix of cold glacier, razor sharp volcanic rock, and hot magmatic steam is otherworldly. That is, until an errant bee shows up to check out your dinner.

By Alexandra Kushnir, postdoctoral researcher at the Institut de Physique du Globe de Strasbourg, France.

This photo was taken in 2010 while A. Kushnir was a Masters student at the University of British Columbia and acting as a field assistant on the Mount St Helens project.

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/.

 

GeoTalk: How are clouds born?

GeoTalk: How are clouds born?

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Federico Bianchi, a researcher based at University of Helsinki, working on understanding how clouds are born. Federico’s quest to find out has taken him from laboratory experiments at CERN, through to the high peaks of the Alps and to the clean air of the Himalayan mountains. His innovative experimental approach and impressive publication record, only three years out of his PhD, have been recognised with one of four Arne Richter Awards for Outstanding Early Career Scientists in 2017.

First, could you introduce yourself and tell us a little more about your career path so far?

I am an enthusiastic atmospheric chemist  with a passion for the mountains. My father introduced me to chemistry and my mother comes from the Alps. This mix is probably the reason why I ended up doing research at high altitude.

I studied chemistry at the University of Milan where I got my degree in 2009.  During my bachelor and master thesis I investigated atmospheric issues affecting the polluted Po’ Valley in Northern Italy and since then I have always  worked as an atmospheric chemist.

I did my PhD at the Paul Scherrer Institute in Switzerland where I mainly worked at the CLOUD experiment at CERN. After that, I used the acquired knowledge to study the same phenomena, first, at almost 4000 m in the heart of the Alps and later at the Everest Base Camp.

I did one year postdoc at the ETH in Zurich and now I have my own Fellowship paid by the Swiss National Science Foundation to conduct research at high altitude with the support of the University of Helsinki.

We are all intimately familiar with clouds. They come in all shapes and sizes and are bringers of shade, precipitation, and sometimes even extreme weather. But most of us are unlikely to have given much thought to how clouds are born. So, how does it actually happen?

We all know that the air is full of water vapor, however, this doesn’t mean that we have clouds all the time.

When air rises in the atmosphere it cools down and after reaching a certain humidity it will start to condense and form a cloud droplet. In order to form such a droplet the water vapor needs to condense on a cloud seed that is commonly known as a cloud condensation nuclei. Pure water droplets would require conditions that are not present in our atmosphere. Therefore, it is a good assumption to say that each cloud droplet contains a little seed.

At the upcoming General Assembly you’ll be giving a presentation highlighting your work on understanding how clouds form in the free troposphere. What is the free troposphere and how is your research different from other studies which also aim to understand how clouds form?

The troposphere, the lower part of the atmosphere, is subdivided in two different regions. The first is in contact with the Earth’s surface and is most affected by human activity. This one is called the planetary boundary layer, while the upper part is the so called free troposphere.

From several studies we know that a big fraction of the cloud seeds formed in the free troposphere are produced by a gas-to-particles conversion (homogeneous nucleation), where different molecules of unknown substances get together to form tiny particles. When the conditions are favourable they can grow into bigger sizes and potentially become cloud condensation nuclei.

In our research, we are the first ones to take state of the art instrumentation, that previously, had only been used in laboratory experiments or within the planetary boundary layer, to remote sites at high altitude.

Federico has taken state of the art instrumentation, that previously, had only been used in laboratory experiments or within the planetary boundary layer, to remote sites at high altitude. Credit: Federico Bianchi

At the General Assembly you plan on talking about how some of the processes you’ve identified in your research are potentially very interesting in order to understand the aerosol conditions in the pre-industrial era (a time period for when information is very scarce). Could you tell us a little more about that?

Aerosols are defined as solid or liquid particles suspended in a gas. They are very important because they can have an influence on the Earth’s climate, mainly by interacting with the solar radiation and cooling temperatures.

The human influence on the global warming estimated by the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (known as the IPCC) is calculated based on a difference between the pre-industrial era climate indicators and the present day conditions. While we are starting to understand the aerosols present currently, in the atmosphere, we still know very little about the conditions before the industrial revolution.

For many years it has been thought that the atmosphere is able to produce new particles/aerosol only if sulphur dioxide (SO2) is present. This molecule is a vapor mainly emitted by combustion processes; which, prior to the industrial revolution was only present in the atmosphere at low concentrations.

For the first time, results from our CLOUD experiments, published last year,  proved that organic vapours emitted by trees, such as alpha-pinene, can also nucleate and form new particles, without the presence of SO2. In a parallel study, we also observed that pure organic nucleation can take place in the free troposphere.

We therefore have evidence that the presence of sulphur dioxide isn’t necessary to make such a mechanism possible. Finally, with all this new information, we are able to say that indeed, in the pre-industrial era the atmosphere was able to produce new particles (clouds seeds) by oxidation of vapors emitted by the vegetation.

Often, field work can be a very rewarding part of the research process, but traditional research papers have little room for relaying those experiences. What were the highlights of your time in the Himalayas and how does the experience compare to your time spent carrying out laboratory experiments?

Doing experiments in the heart of the Himalayas is rewarding. But life at such altitude is tough. Breathing, walking and thinking is made difficult by the lack of oxygen at high altitudes.

I have always been a scientists who enjoys spending time in the laboratory. For this reason I very much liked  the time I spent in CERN, although, sometimes it was quite stressful. Being part of such a large international collaboration and being able to actively do science was a major achievement for me. However, when I realized I could also do what I love in the mountains, I just couldn’t  stop myself from giving it a go.

The first experiment in the Alps was the appetizer for the amazing Himalayan experience. During this trip, we first travelled to Kathmandu, in Nepal. Then, we flew to Luckla (hailed as one of the scariest airport in the world) and we started our hiking experience, walking from Luckla (2800 m) up to the Everest Base Camp (5300 m). We reached the measurement site after a 6 days hike through Tibetan bridges, beautiful sherpa villages, freezing nights and sweaty days. For the whole time we were surrounded by the most beautiful mountains I have ever seen. The cultural element was even more interesting. Meeting new people from a totally different culture was the cherry on the cake.

However I have to admit that it was not always as easy as it sounds now. Life at such altitude is tough. It is difficult to breath, difficult to walk and to install the heavy instrumentation. In addition to that, the temperature in your room during nights goes well below zero degrees. The low oxygen doesn’t really help your thinking, especially we you need to troubleshoot your instrumentation. It happens often that after such journey, the instruments are not functioning properly.

I can say that, as a mountain and science lover, this was just amazing. Going on a field campaign is definitely the  best part of this beautiful job.

To finish the interview I wanted to talk about your career. Your undergraduate degree was in chemistry. Many early career scientists are faced with the option (or need) to change discipline at sometime throughout their studies or early stages of their career. How did you find the transition and what advice would you have for other considering the same?

As I said before, I studied chemistry and by the end of my degree my favourite subject moved to atmospheric chemistry. The atmosphere is a very complex system and in order to study it, we need a multidisciplinary approach. This forced me to learn several other aspects that I had never been in touch with before. Nowadays, I still define myself as a chemist, although my knowledge base is very varied.

I believe that for a young scientist it is very important to understand which are his or her strengths and being able to take advantage of them. For example, in my case, I have used my knowledge in chemistry and mass spectrometry to try to understand the complex atmospheric system.

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work.

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