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

September 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 and what you might have missed

This month has been an onslaught of  Earth and space science news; the majority focusing on natural hazards. Hurricanes, earthquakes and volcanic eruptions have been dominating headlines, but here we also highlight some other natural disasters which have attracted far fewer reports. Quickly recap on an action-packed month with our overview, complete with links:

Hurricanes

Thought the Atlantic hurricane season is far from over, 2017 has already shattered records: since 1st June 13 storms have been named, of which seven have gone onto become hurricanes and two registered as a category 5 storm on the Saffir-Simpson Hurricane Wind Scale. In September, Hurricanes Irma, Katia and Jose batter Caribbean islands, Mexico and the Southern U.S.; hot on the heels of the hugely destructive Hurricane Harvey which made landfall in Texas and Louisiana at the end of August. Images captured by NASA’s Operational Land Imager (OLI) on the Landsat 8 satellite show the scale of the damage caused by Hurricane Irma; while photos reveal the dire situation unfolding in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria.  OCHA, the United Nations Office for the coordinate of Human Affairs, released an infographic showing the impact the 2017 hurricane season has had on Caribbean islands (correct of 22nd September).

Earthquakes

At the same time, two powerful earthquakes shook Mexico in the space of 12 days causing chaos, building collapse and hundreds of fatalities.

Rumbling volcanoes

In the meantime, all eyes on the Indonesian island of Bali have been on Mount Agung which has already forced the evacuation of almost 100,000 people as the volcano threatens to erupt for the first time in 54 years. Unprecedented seismic activity around the volcano has been increasing, though no eruptive activity has been recorded yet.

Further south, the government of Vanuatu, a South Pacific Ocean nation, declared a state of emergency and ordered the evacuation of all 11,000 residents of Ambae island, as activity of its volcano, Manaro, increased. The New Zealand Defence Force (NZDF) sent an aircraft to fly over the volcano on Tuesday and discovered plumes of smoke, ash and volcanic rocks erupting from the crater.

Map of volcanic hazards for Ambae in Vanuatu. Credit: Vanatu Meteorology & Geo-hazard Department (vmgd).

The rainy season floods

The summer months mark the onset of the rainy season in regions of Sub-Saharan Africa which experience a savanna climate. Across the Arabian Sea, including the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia, also sees the onset of the monsoon.

Since June, widespread flooding brought on by heavy rainfall has left 56 dead and more than 185,000 homeless in Niger, one of the world’s poorest countries. But the crisis is not restricted to Niger, throughout the summer floods (and associated land and mudslides) in Africa are thought to have claimed 25 times more lives than Hurricane Harvey did.

Meanwhile Mumbai struggled when the heaviest rainfall since 2005 was recorded on 29th August, with most of Northern India experiencing widespread flooding. So far, the UN estimates that 1,200 people have lost their lives across Nepal, India and Bangladesh as a result of the rains. The Red Cross estimates that at least 41 million people have been affected by the flooding and causing the onset of a humanitarian crisis.

Record breaking temperatures and fires

Australia’s record-breaking spring heat (Birdsville, in Queensland’s outback, broke a weather record as temperatures hit 42.5C and Sydney recorded its hottest ever September day) combined with an unusually dry winter means the country is bracing itself for a particularly destructive bushfire season. Already fires rage, uncontrolled (at the time of writing), in New South Wales.

The western United States and Canada suffered one of its worst wildfire seasons to date. Earlier this month, NASA released a satellite image which showed much of the region covered in smoke. High-altitude aerosols from those fires were swept up by prevailing winds and carried across the east of the continent. By 7th September the particles were detected over Ireland, the U.K and northern France, including Paris.

Europe’s forest fire has been hugely devastating too. Much of the Mediterranean and the region North of the Black Sea continues to be in high danger of forest fires following a dry and hot summer. Fires are active in the Iberian Peninsula, Greece, and Germany (among others). Over 2,000 hectares were recently scorched by wildfires in the central mountainous area of Tejeda in Gran Canaria.

Links we liked

  • This month saw the end of NASA’s Cassini spacecraft and ESA’s Huygens probe’s spectacular journey to Saturn. After two decades of science, the mission ended on 15th September as the spacecraft crashed into the giant planet.
  • The last day of August marks the end of the Greenland snow melt season, so September was busy for scientists evaluating how the Greenland ice sheet fared in 2017.
  • “Few disciplines in today’s world play such a significant role in how society operates and what we can do to protect our future,” writes Erik Klemetti (Assoc. Prof. at Denison University), in his post on why college students should study geology.
  • The BBC launched The Prequel to its much anticipated Blue Planet II, a natural history progamme about the Earth’s oceans. Narrated by Sir Sir David Attenborough, the series will featured music by Hans Zimmer and Radiohead. The trailer is a true feast for the eyes. Don’t miss it!

The EGU story

Is it an earthquake, a nuclear test or a hurricane? How seismometers help us understand the world we live in.

Although traditionally used to study earthquakes, like the M 8.1 earthquake in Mexico,  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. But how, exactly, do earthquake scientists decipher the signals picked up by seismometers across the world? And more importantly, how do they know whether they are caused by an earthquake, nuclear test or a hurricane?

To find out we asked Neil Wilkins (a PhD student at the University of Bristol) and Stephen Hicks (a seismologist at the University of Southampton) to share some insights with our readers earlier on this month.

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/.

 

Imaggeo on Mondays: Lava highway in Kanaga Island

Imaggeo on Mondays: Lava highway in Kanaga Island

On a rare sunny day, Mattia Pistone (a researcher at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC) was able to capture this spectacular shot of Kanaga, a stratovolcano in the remote Western Aleutians, which is usually veiled by thick cloud.

The Western Aleutians form a chain of 14 large and 55 small volcanic islands, belonging to one of the most extended volcanic archipelagos on Earth (1900 km), stretching from Alaska across the northern Pacific towards the shores of Russia.

As part of a team of researchers, Mattia spent three grueling weeks in the isolated region. Being one of the most extended volcanic arc systems on Earth, the Aleutians can shed light on one of the most fundamental questions in the Earth sciences: how do continents form?

The Earth’s landmasses are made of continental crust, which is thought to be largely andesitic in composition. That could mean it is dominated by a silicon-rich rock, of magmatic origin, which is fine grained and usually light to dark grey in colour. However, basaltic magmas derived from the Earth’s upper mantle and erupted at active volcanoes contribute to chemistry of the continental crust. The fact that continental crust bears the chemical hallmarks of both suggests that the formation of new continents must somehow be linked to motion of magma and its chemistry.

Establishing the link between magma generation, transport, emplacement, and eruption can therefore significantly improve our understanding of crust-forming processes associated with plate tectonics, and, particularly, help determining the architecture and composition of the continental crust. The Alaska-Aleutian archipelago is a natural laboratory which offers a variable range of volcanic rocks. The islands present a perfect opportunity for scientists to try and understand the origin of continents.

By collecting samples of volcanic ash erupted at Kanaga and other volcanoes of the Aleutian arc, Mattia and his colleagues are currently investigating the origin of this volcanic ash. Understanding its chemistry allow the team to get a clearer idea of the conditions that were present while the magma was forming and ascending, for example, how much water and iron were present.

The team were based on the Maritime Maid research vessel, and hoped from island to island collecting samples and taking measurements of volcanic activity as part of a large research consortium called GeoPRISMS, funded by the National Science Foundation. The field work was supported by a Bell 407 helicopter and its crew.

Today’s featured image shows an andesitic lava flow erupted in 1906. The volcanic deposits were explored during the field geological mission by Mattia and the team. Kanaga last erupted in 1994. Ash from that eruption was found in the nearby island of Adak. Even at present, there is a highly active system of fumaroles at the summit of the volcano.

If you pre-register for the 2017 General Assembly (Vienna, 22 – 28 April), you can take part in our annual photo competition! From 1 February up until 1 March, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up three original photos and one moving image related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences in competition for free registration to next year’s General Assembly!  These can include fantastic field photos, a stunning shot of your favourite thin section, what you’ve captured out on holiday or under the electron microscope – if it’s geoscientific, it fits the bill. Find out more about how to take part at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/photo-contest/information/.

Imaggeo on Mondays: A Bubbling Cauldron

Imaggeo on Mondays: A Bubbling Cauldron

Despite being a natural hazard which requires careful management, there is no doubt that there is something awe inspiring about volcanic eruptions. To see an erupting volcano up close, even fly through the plume, is the thing of dreams. That’s exactly what Jamie  Farquharson, a researcher at Université de Strasbourg (France) managed to do during the eruption of the Icelandic volcano Bárðarbunga. Read about his incredible experience in today’s Imaggeo on Monday’s post.

The picture shows the Holuhraun eruption and was taken by my wife, Hannah Derbyshire. It was taken from a light aircraft on the 11th of November of 2014, when the eruption was still in full swing, looking down into the roiling fissure. Lava was occasionally hurled tens of metres into the air in spectacular curtains of molten rock, with more exiting the fissure in steady rivers to cover the surrounding landscape.

Iceland is part of the mid-Atlantic ridge: the convergent boundary of the Eurasian and North American continental plates and one of the only places where a mid-ocean ridge rears above the surface of the sea. It’s situation means that it is geologically dynamic, boasting hundreds of volcanoes of which around thirty volcanic systems are currently active. Holuhraun is located in east-central Iceland to the north of the Vatnajökull ice cap, sitting in the saddle between the Bárðarbunga and Askja fissure systems which run NE-SW across the Icelandic highlands.

Monitored seismic activity in the vicinity of Bárðarbunga volcano had been increasing more-or-less steadily between 2007 and 2014. In mid-August 2014, swarms of earthquakes were detected migrating northwards from Bárðarbunga, interpreted as a dyke intruding to the east and north of the source. Under the ice, eruptions were detected from the 23rd of August, finally culminating in a sustained fissure eruption which continued from late-August 2014 to late-February of the next year.

My wife and I were lucky enough to have booked a trip to Iceland a month or so before the eruption commenced and, unlike its (in)famous Icelandic compatriot Eyjafjallajökull, prevailing wind conditions and the surprising lack of significant amounts of ash from Holuhraun meant that air traffic was largely unaffected.

At the time the photo was taken, the flowfield consisted of around 1000 million cubic metres of lava, covering over 75 square kilometres. After the eruption died down in February 2015, the flowfield was estimated to cover an expanse of 85 square kilometres, with the overall volume of lava exceeding 1400 million cubic metres, making it the largest effusive eruption in Iceland for over two hundred years (the 1783 eruption of Laki spewed out an estimated 14 thousand million cubic metres of lava).

Numerous “breakouts” could be observed on the margins of the flowfield as the emplacing lava flowfield increased in both size and complexity. Breakouts form when relatively hot lava, insulated by the cooled outer carapace of the flow, inflates this chilled carapace until it fractures and allows the relatively less-viscous (runnier) interior lava to spill through and form a lava delta. Gas-rich, low-viscosity magma often results in the emission of high-porosity (bubbly) lava. My current area of research examines how gases and liquids can travel through volcanic rock, a factor that is greatly influenced by the evolution of porosity during and after lava emplacement.

Flying through the turbulent plume one is aware of a strong smell of fireworks or a just-struck match: a testament to the emission of huge volumes of sulphur dioxide from the fissure. Indeed, the Icelandic Met Office have since estimated that 11 million tons of SO2 were emitted over the course of the six-month eruption, along with almost 7 million tons of CO2 and vast quantities of other gases such as HCl. These gases hydrate and oxidise in the atmosphere to form acids, in turn leading to acid rain. The environmental impact of Holuhraun as a gas-rich point source is an area of active research.

By Jamie Farquharson, PhD researcher at Université de Strasbourg (France)

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/.