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An overnight train view of China’s Anthropocene – Part 1

An overnight train view of China’s Anthropocene – Part 1

The nighttrain from Shanghai to Beijing is a comfortable affair. The train is new and clean. My travel partner and I can charge our phones and relax on soft beds. The railway is almost frictionless, and overall the experience is similar to any ride in the West. But outside, as the vehicle roars through the early night, things become increasingly hazy. As we reach further out from the Shanghai metropolis there is a slow realisation that the urban air-polluted luminous glow would not be left behind.

For those who have yet to visit China, it’s hard to truly convey the extent of the air pollution problem. During our time in Shanghai the smog was all encompassing; we could feel it settle on our skin and invade our lungs with every breath. Outdoors there was no escaping it. The Chinese air pollution forecast designated the risk level ‘moderate,’ and we wondered what ‘high’ would entail.

Inside the train we lay on opposite bunks. I fixed the window blind ajar to keep a sleepy eye on nighttime tree tops and apartment blocks as we dart by. We passed endless residential towers as we edged by cities we would never become familiar with, some of which appear desolate, almost entirely unlit, but I can’t imagine for long. Once we passed directly under a giant coal fired power station and by countless fields illuminated in the haze by nocturnal agriculture. There are trucks loading at 3 a.m. Along this 1200 km stretch – think Paris to Madrid – the foggy dim light rarely ceded.

This true-color image over eastern China was acquired by the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS), flying aboard NASA’s Aqua satellite, on Oct. 16, 2002. The scene reveals dozens of fires burning on the surface (red dots) and a thick pall of smoke and haze (greyish pixels) filling the skies overhead. Credit: NASA (via Wikimedia Commons)

My traveling companion is a children’s doctor. She raised her concerns: what chance do children born in these cities today have of living long healthy lives? Will they live full lives breathing in this industrial gunk? She explained to me that respiratory diseases kill because of chronic inflammation in the lungs, similar to that experienced from exposure to cigarette smoke. Such inflammation can in time lead to reduced lung function and, consequently, increased pressure on the heart due to less oxygen intake. Then, as the heart works harder to introduce the oxygen the body needs, it can fail, leading to premature death.

Estimates on health issues relating to long-term exposure to air pollution in China are hard to come by. It’s also hard to assess how dangerous such exposure is, but it’s likely China will experience an epidemic of respiratory related illnesses in the near future. One recent study reported that the Chinese population will suffer about 1.6 million premature deaths each year due to air pollution. As well as the human cost of lost loved ones, these air pollution related health risks will become a tremendous financial burden on the national health system. In 2007, The World Bank estimated that the annual health cost of outdoor urban air pollution in China for 2003 was between 157 and 520 billion Chinese yuan, around 1-3% of China’s gross domestic product.

However, this year China announced it would, for the first time, introduce a human health air pollution watchdog. According to Chinese officials, this is the first attempt by the national government to address how pollution affects public health. One day, scientists will be able to report on how generations born today can benefit from such endeavours. But for now, the future remains uncertain.

This is Part 1 of a two-part series on the impact of air pollution in China and the country’s steps to usher a clean era for the 21st century. Keep an eye out for Part 2, appearing next week on Geolog.

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

Conor Purcell is a science journalist with a PhD in Earth Science. He is the founding editor of and can be found on twitter @ConorPPurcell and some of his other articles at

Editor’s note: This is a guest blog post that expresses the opinion of its author, whose views may differ from those of the European Geosciences Union. We hope the post can serve to generate discussion and a civilised debate amongst our readers.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Digging out a glacier’s story

Imaggeo on Mondays: Digging out a glacier’s story

This photograph shows landforms on Coraholmen Island in Ekmanfjorden, one of the fjords found in the Norwegian archipelago, Svalbard. These geomorphic features were formed by Sefströmbreen, a tidewater glacier, when it surged in the 1880s.

Although all glaciers flow, some glaciers undergo cyclic changes in their flow. This is called surging, and glaciers that surge are called surging glaciers. During their active phase, surging glaciers speed up and advance. At this time, glaciers collect, transport and deposit large volumes of sediment. This active phase is then followed by a so-called quiescent phase, when glaciers slowdown and retreat. Sediment carried within the ice is then exposed. Often surge-type glaciers produce a characteristic set of landforms, like the red ridges featured here in this photograph.

Only a small proportion of the world’s glaciers surge. Svalbard is home to many of these surging glaciers, and the length of the surge cycle varies by region. A quiescent phase of surging glaciers in Svalbard can last between 10 and 100 years. An active phase is commonly between 1 and 10 years. Surging glaciers are enigmatic; we still do not fully understand all the processes that cause these glaciers to switch between active and quiescent phases.

When Sefströmbreen surged, it advanced over the fjord and overrode Coraholmen Island. The glacier deposited up to 0.2 km3 of sediment on the western side of the island. As a result, the island doubled in size. The red ridges in the foreground of the photograph were formed when sediment under the glacier was squeezed up into crevasses, large cracks in the ice. Once the ice melted, these crevasse-squeezed ridges were exposed. They contrast in colour with grey Kolosseum Mountain in the background.

Glaciers are useful indicators of past climate and they are used for climate reconstructions. However, surging glaciers are not suitable for such reconstructions. This is because glacier surging is not directly related to climate. When a surging glacier advances during its active phase, it does not mean that the climate is colder. This also holds true for the past. If a surging glacier was bigger at some point in the past, it is not because the climate at the time was colder. If we didn’t know that the glacier surged, we would make a wrong inference about climate. Therefore it is important to know which glaciers are surging-type glaciers.

To document surging behaviour of glaciers, we can use historical sources, glaciological observations and satellite images. If no such records exist or if we are interested in time period that precedes satellite observations, we rely on landforms to tell us the story. We can study these landforms, their appearance, shape, structure, and what they’re made of to learn about past behaviour of glaciers, their dynamics, and processes that go on underneath a glacier where it meets its bed.

The photograph was taken during a field cruise as part of the University Centre in Svalbard’s Arctic Glaciers and Landscapes course.

By Monika Mendelova, University of Edinburgh (UK)


Boulton, G.S. et al. Till and moraine emplacement in a deforming bed surge — an example from a marine environment. QSR 15, 961-987. 1996

Evans, D.J.A., & Rea, B.R. Geomorphology and sedimentology of surging glaciers: a land-systems approach. Ann. Glaciol. 27, 75 – 82. 1999

Dowdeswell, J.A. et al. Mass balance change as a control on the frequency and occurrence of glacier surges in Svalbard, Norwegian High Arctic. Geophys. Res. Lett. 22, 2909-2912. 1995

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

Preprint power: changing the publishing scene

Preprint power: changing the publishing scene

Open access publishing has become common practice in the science community. In this guest post, David Fernández-Blanco, a contributor to the EGU Tectonics and Structural Geology Division blog, presents one facet of open access that is changing the publishing system for many geoscientists: preprints.

Open access initiatives confronting the publishing system

The idea of open access publishing and freely sharing research outputs is becoming widely embraced by the scientific community. The limitations of traditional publishing practices and the misuse of this system are some of the key drivers behind the rise of open access initiatives. Additionally, the open access movement has been pushed even further by current online capacities to widely share research as it is produced.

Efforts to make open access the norm in publishing have been active for quite some time now. For example, almost two decades ago, the European Geosciences Union (EGU) launched its first open access journals, which hold research papers open for interactive online discussion. The EGU also allows manuscripts to be reviewed online by anyone in the community, before finally published in their peer-reviewed journals.

This trend is also now starting to be reflected at an institutional level. For example, all publicly funded scientific papers in Europe could be free to access by 2020, thanks to a reform promoted in 2016 by Carlos Moedas, the European Union’s Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation.

More recently, in late 2017, around 200 German universities and research organisations cancelled the renewal of their Elsevier subscriptions due to unmet demands for lower prices and an open access policies. Similarly, French institutions refused a new deal with Springer in early 2018. Now, Swedish researchers have followed suit, deciding to cancel their agreement with Elsevier. All these international initiatives are confronting an accustomed publishing system.

The community-driven revolution

Within this context, it’s no surprise that the scientific community has come up with various exciting initiatives that promote open access, such as creating servers to share preprints. Preprints are scientific contributions ready to be shared with other scientists, but that are not yet (or are in the process of being) peer-reviewed. A preprint server is an online platform hosting preprints and making them freely available online.

Many journals that were slow to accept these servers are updating their policies to adapt to the steadily growing increase of preprint usage by a wide-range of scientific communities. Now most journals welcome manuscripts hosted by a preprint server. Even job postings and funding agencies are changing their policies. For example, the European Research Council (ERC) Starting and Consolidator Grants are now taking applicant preprints into consideration.

Preprints: changing the publishing system

ArXiv is the oldest and most established preprint server. It was created in 1991, initially directed towards physics research. The server receives on average 10,000 submissions per month and now hosts over one million manuscripts. Arxiv sets a precedent for preprints, and now servers covering other scientific fields have emerged, such as bioRxiv and ChemRxiv.

Credit: EarthArXiv

EarthArXiv was the first to fill the preprint gap for the Earth sciences. It was launched in October 2017 by Tom Narock, an assistant professor at Notre Dame of Maryland University in Baltimore (US), and Christopher Jackson, a professor at Imperial College London (UK). In the first 24 hours after its online launch, this preprint server already had nine submissions from geoscientists.

The server holds now more than 400 preprints, approved for publication after moderation, and gets around 1,600 downloads monthly. The platform’s policy may well contribute to its success – EarthArXiv is an independent preprint server strongly supported by the Earth sciences community, now run by 125 volunteers. The logo, for example, was a crowdsourcing effort. Through social media, EarthArXiv asked the online community to send their designs; then a poll was held to decide which one of the submitted logos would be selected. Additionally, the server’s Diversity Statement and Moderation Policy were both developed communally.

Credit: ESSOAr

In February 2018, some months after EarthArXiv went live, another platform serving the Earth sciences was born: the American Geophysical Union’s Earth and Space Science Open Archive, ESSOAr. The approach between both platforms is markedly different; ESSOAr is partially supported by Wiley, a publishing company, while EarthArXiv is independent of any publishers. The ESSOAr server is gaining momentum by hosting conference posters, while EarthArXiv plans to focus on preprint manuscripts, at least for the near future. The ESSOAr server hosts currently 120 posters and nine preprints.

What is the power of preprints?

How can researchers benefit from these new online sources?

No delays:

Preprint servers allow rapid dissemination. Through preprints, new scientific findings are shared directly with other scientists. The manuscript is immediately available after being uploaded, meaning it is searchable right away. There is no delay for peer-review, editorial decisions, or lengthy journal production.


A DOI is assigned to the work, so it is citable as soon as it is uploaded. This is especially helpful to early career scientists seeking for employment and funding opportunities, as they can show and prove their scholarly track record at any point.


Making research visible to the community can lead to helpful feedback and constructive, transparent discussions. Some servers and participating authors have promoted their preprints through social media, in many cases initiating productive conversations with fellow scientists. Hence, preprints promote not only healthy exchanges, but they may also lead to improvements to the initial manuscript. Also, through these exchanges, which occur outside of the journal-led peer-review route, it is possible to network and build collaborative links with fellow scientists.

No boundaries:

Preprints allow everyone to have access to science, making knowledge available across boundaries.

The servers are open without cost to everyone forever. This also means tax payers have free access to the science they pay for.


Preprint servers are a useful way to self-archive documents.  Many preprint servers also host postprints, which are already published articles (after the embargo period applicable to some journals).

Given the difference between the publishing industry’s current model and preprint practices, it is not surprising to find an increasing number of scientists stirring the preprint movement. It is possible that many of such researchers are driven by a motivation to contribute to a transparent process and promote open science within their community and to the public. This motivation is indeed the true power of preprints.

Editor’s note: This is a guest blog post that expresses the opinion of its author, whose views may differ from those of the European Geosciences Union. We hope the post can serve to generate discussion and a civilised debate amongst our readers.

NASA’s Juno mission reveals Jupiter’s magnetic field greatly differs from Earth’s

NASA’s Juno mission reveals Jupiter’s magnetic field greatly differs from Earth’s

NASA scientists have revealed surprising new information about Jupiter’s magnetic field from data gathered by their space probe, Juno.

Unlike earth’s magnetic field, which is symmetrical in the North and South Poles, Jupiter’s magnetic field has startlingly different magnetic signatures at the two poles.

The information has been collected as part of the Juno program, NASA’s latest mission to unravel the mysteries of the biggest planet in our solar system. The solar-powered spacecraft is made of three 8.5 metre-long solar panels angled around a central body. The probe (pictured above) cartwheels through space, travelling at speeds up to 250,000 kilometres per hour.

Measurements taken by a magnetometer mounted on the spacecraft have allowed a stunning new insight into the planet’s gigantic magnetic field. They reveal the field lines’ pathways vary greatly from the traditional ‘bar magnet’ magnetic field produced by earth.

Jupiter’s magnetic field is enormous. if magnetic radiation were visible to the naked eye, from earth, Jupiter’s magnetic field would appear bigger than the moon. Credit: NASA/JPL/SwRI

The Earth’s magnetic field is generated by the movement of fluid in its inner core called a dynamo. The dynamo produces a positive radiomagnetic field that comes out of one hemisphere and a symmetrical negative field that goes into the other.

The interior of Jupiter on the other hand, is quite different from Earth’s. The planet is made up almost entirely of hydrogen gas, meaning the whole planet is essentially a ball of moving fluid. The result is a totally unique magnetic picture. While the south pole has a negative magnetic field similar to Earth’s, the northern hemisphere is bizarrely irregular, comprised of a series of positive magnetic anomalies that look nothing like any magnetic field seen before.

“The northern hemisphere has a lot of positive flux in the northern mid latitude. It’s also the site of a lot of anomalies,” explains Juno Deputy Principal Investigator, Jack Connerney, who spoke at a press conference at the EGU General Assembly in April. “There is an extraordinary hemisphere asymmetry to the magnetic field [which] was totally unexpected.”

NASA have produced a video that illustrates the unusual magnetism, with the red spots indicating a positive magnetic field and the blue a negative field:

Before its launch in 2016, Juno was programmed to conduct 34 elliptical ‘science’ orbits, passing 4,200 kilometres above Jupiter’s atmosphere at its closest point. When all the orbits are complete, the spacecraft will undertake a final deorbit phase before impacting into Jupiter in February 2020.

So far Juno has achieved eleven science orbits, and the team analysing the data hope to learn more as it completes more passes. “In the remaining orbits we will get a finer resolution of the magnetic field, which will help us understand the dynamo and how deep the magnetic field forms” explains Scott Bolton, Principal Investigator of the mission.

The researchers’ next steps are to examine the probe’s data after its 16th and 34th passes meaning it will be a few more months before they are able to learn more of Jupiter’s mysterious magnetosphere.

By Keri McNamara, EGU 2018 General Assembly Press Assistant

Further reading

Connerney, J. E. P., Kotsiaros, S., Oliversen, R. J., Espley, J. R., Joergensen, J. L., Joergensen, P. S., et al. A new model of Jupiter’s magnetic field from Juno’s first nine orbits. Geophysical Research Letters, 45, 2590–2596. 2018

Bolton, S. J. et al. Jupiter’s interior and deep atmosphere: The initial pole-to-pole passes with the Juno spacecraft, Science, 356(6340), p. 821 LP-825. 2017

Guillot, T. et al. A suppression of differential rotation in Jupiter’s deep interior, Nature. Macmillan Publishers Limited, part of Springer Nature. All rights reserved., 555, p. 227. 2018