GeoLog

Field Work

Imaggeo on Mondays: An expedition to better understand Antarctic soils

Imaggeo on Mondays: An expedition to better understand Antarctic soils

A dramatic evening sky puts the frame to a photo taken during the Brazilian Antarctic expedition to James Ross Island in 2016. Brazilian palaeontologists and soil scientists together with German soil scientists spent over 40 days on the island to search for fossils and sample soils at various locations of the northern part of the island.

The island was named after Sir James Clark Ross who led the British expedition in 1842, which first charted locations at the eastern part of the island. James Ross Island is part of Graham Land, the northern portion of the Antarctic Peninsula, separated from South America by the stormy Drake sea passage.

Map of the Antarctic Peninsula featuring the James Ross Archipelago (Credit: The Scientific Committee on Antarctic Research, Antarctic Digital Database Map Viewer)

This photo was taken in the northern Ulu Peninsula, which is the northernmost part of the relatively large James Ross Island and the largest ice-free area in the Antarctic Peninsula region. The island’s characteristic appearance is formed by Late Neogene volcanic rocks (3-7 million years old) over fossil rich Late Cretaceous sandstones (66-120 million years old).

In the photo we are looking from a higher marine terrace at the Santa Martha Cove, the ‘home’ to the 2016 Brazilian Antarctic expedition, towards the steep cliffs of Lachman Crags, a characteristic mesa formed by Late Neogene lava flows. The Lachman Crags mesa, the Spanish word for tablelands, dominates the landscape of the northern part of the Ulu Peninsula. Above the cliffs visible in the photo, a glacier covered plateau stretches to the Northwest.

The marine terrace on which the tent is standing is comprised of a flat area that has been ice-free for approximately 6000 years and thus makes for a great model system to study soil development after glacial retreat. The ground is composed of a mixture of volcanic rocks and Cretaceous sandstones rich in all sorts of fossils, from fossilised wood to shark teeth, ammonites and reptile bones.

The strong winds that can start in Antarctica from one moment to the other and the very low precipitation led to the characteristic desert pavement, with stones sorted in a flat arrangement on top of the fine textured, deeply weathered permafrost soils. Although these soils host a surprisingly high number of microorganisms, most terrestrial life is restricted to wetter areas surrounding fresh water lakes and melt water streams. Thus lakes and snow meltwater-fed areas make for higher primary production of algae and mosses, fostering biodiversity and soil development by organic matter input.

As there are no larger bird rookeries on James Ross Island the only way sea-derived nutrients reach the Ulu Peninsula is by a rather grim feature:  dead seal carcasses that lie distributed across the lowlands (< 150 m asl) of the Ulu Peninsula. Carcasses fertilise the soils in their direct vicinity while slowly decomposing over decades, thus feeding small patches of lichens and mosses within the barren cold arid desert. The region is thus an illustration of the harsh Antarctic environment where even Weddell seals, animals that are well adapted for the living in dense pack ice during the polar night, die when losing track on land on the way to the water.

By Carsten Müller, Technical University of Munich Chair of Soil Science, Germany

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: The ephemeral salt crystals

Imaggeo on Mondays: The ephemeral salt crystals

Rock salt stalactites (Speleothems) are the indicators of entrance in a salt cave. These crystal stalactites precipitate from brine only at the entrance in the salt caves, as that is the only place where the physical and chemical properties of the air and the brine dripping from the ceiling allow these crystals to grow and be preserved. And they are extremely fragile – if there is just a small change in the brine’s chemistry or the air’s moisture, the crystals will vanish away, dissolved in a pool of brine or a stream of salt water flowing out of the cave. These stalactites of salt crystals are what we call secondary salt; that means the original salt (formed million years ago) dissolved in water and re-precipitated recently.

Yes, you heard right, the sediments that contain these caves are made of rock-salt in the ground. Actually, caves can be formed in various types of soluble materials, from limestone and gypsum to halite (rock salt) or even ice. The salt caves denote the presence of salt near the surface of the earth.

How does the salt get there? Well we do know that there have been moments in the history of the Earth when certain seas (salt giants) have accumulated enormous deposits of salt instead of the more familiar mud sediments. However, we still don’t completely understand the process. That is also due to the fact that, unlike other rocks, salt has a plastic behavior, it tends to ‘flow’ upwards through other rocks, towards the surface (pretty much like wet sand between your feet when at seaside). As salt squeezes its way up, it deforms the rocks around it and creates salt domes that are later dissolved by water. This dynamic behavior of salt means that there are very few places where we can find salt in its original location and the understanding of the natural mechanisms that form salt remains incomplete.

Earth scientists like me, try to understand the mechanism of salt formation. Because the big picture of the past environments where salt is formed is currently blurred, we try to recreate a ‘movie’ of the past, that starts long before the formation of salts and ends long after. In this ‘movie’ we look at the past geography (paleogeography) and past environment (paleoenvironmental) changes from before to after the formation of the salts in order to single out key patterns that can bring us closer to removing the blur from this interesting episode in the story of oceans and seas.

I took this photo while doing field work in eastern Romania. The photo was taken on a tributary of the ‘Slănicul de Buzău’ river in the Buzău Land Geopark, an area of outstanding geological beauty, in the outer hills of South-East Carpathians. When I was stumbling on the salt caves in the field, I had to put mapping and sample collecting on pause. The layers of rock I was following had disappeared, replaced by a chaotic pile of mud, salt and small rock fragments. All I could do was check these rock fragments scattered in the landscape, try to figure out from where they come from, what layers of rock  the salt destroyed and of course, enjoy the geometric beauty of the ephemeral crystals.

By Dan V. Palcu, postdoctoral researcher at the University of São Paulo, Brazil

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: Robotics at the service of the polar science

Imaggeo on Mondays: Robotics at the service of the polar science

This picture was taken in the Arctic in May 2018. It shows the unmanned marine vehicle Proteus in front of the tidewater glacier Conwaybreen in the Kongsfjorden in Spitsbergen in the Svalbard Archipelago. The front of tidewater glaciers is an almost vertical wall of ice standing over the sea where direct measurements are very critical due to the possibility of sudden fall of enormous blocks of ice. For this reason there is a lack of environmental data in this areas. The use of Proteus to collect data allowed to increase the understanding of phenomena related to the global climate change, especially ice melting.

PROTEUS was equipped with an autonomous water sampler and with two winches for the management of various sensors. One winch was used to release and recover a cluster of underwater sensors and the other to release and recover an air balloon carrying air quality sensors. With this solution it was possible to obtain a good characterization of the whole marine-air column in the proximity of tidewater glaciers.

Description by Angelo Odetti, as it first appeared on imaggeo.egu.eu.

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/.