General Assembly

GeoTalk: Severe soil erosion events and how to predict them

GeoTalk: Severe soil erosion events and how to predict them

Geotalk is a regular feature highlighting early career researchers and their work. In this interview we speak to Matthias Vanmaercke, an associate professor at the University of Liège in Belgium who studies soil erosion and land degradation across Europe and Africa. At the EGU General Assembly he received the 2018 Soil System Sciences Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists Award.

Thanks for talking to us today! Could you introduce yourself and tell us about your career path so far?

Hi! So I am Matthias Vanmaercke. I’m from Belgium. I’m studied physical geography at the University of Leuven in Belgium, where I also completed my PhD, which focused on the spatial patterns of soil erosion and sediment yield in Europe. After my PhD, I continued working on these topics but with a stronger emphasis on Africa. Since November 2016, I became an associate professor at the University of Liege, Department of Geography where I continue this line of research and teach several courses in geography.

At the 2018 General Assembly, you received a Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists Award for your contributions towards understanding soil erosion and catchment sediment export (or the amount of eroded soil material that gets effectively transported by a river system).

Could you give us a quick explanation of these processes and how they impact our environment and communities?

We have known for a long time that soil erosion and catchment sediment export pose important challenges to societies. In general, our soils provide many important ecosystem services, including food production via agriculture. However, in many cases, soil erosion threatens the long term sustainabilty of these services.

Several erosion processes, such as gully erosion, often have more direct impacts as well. These include damage to infrastructure and increased problems with flooding. Gullies can also greatly contribute to the sediment loads of rivers by directly providing sediments and also by increasing the connectivity between eroding hill slopes and the river network. These high sediment loads are in fact the off-site impacts of soil erosion and often cause problems as well, including deteriorated water quality and the sedimentation of reservoirs (contributing to lower freshwater availability in many regions).

Matthias Vanmaercke, recipient of the 2018 Soil System Sciences Division Outstanding Early Career Scientists Award. Credti: Matthias Vanmaercke.

What recent advances have we made in predicting these kinds of processes?

Given that we live in an increasingly globalised and rapidly changing world, there is a great need for models and tools that can predict soil erosion and sediment export as our land use and climate changes.

However, currently our ability to predict these processes, foresee their impacts and develop catchment management and land use strategies remains limited. This is particularly so at regional and continental scales and especially in Africa. For some time, we have been able to simulate processes like sheet and rill erosion fairly well. However, other processes like gully erosion, landsliding and riverbank erosion, remain much more difficult to simulate.

Nonetheless, the situation is clearly improving. For example, with respect to gully erosion, we already know the key factors and mechanisms that drive this process. The rise of new datasets and techniques helps to translate these insights into models that will likely be able to simulate these processes reasonably well. I expect that this will become feasible during the coming years.


What is the benefit of being able to predict these processes? What can communities do with this information?

These kinds of predictions are relevant in many ways. Overall, soil erosion is strongly driven by our land use. However, some areas are much more sensitive than others (e.g. steep slopes, very erodible soil types). Moreover, many of these different erosion processes can interact with each other. For example, in some cases gully formation can entrain landslides and vice versa.

Models that are capable of predicting these different erosion processes and interactions can strongly help us in avoiding erosion, as they provide information that is useful for planning our land use better. For instance, these models can help determine which areas are best reforested or where soil and water conservation measures are needed.

They also help with avoiding and mitigating the impacts of erosion. Many of these processes are important natural hazards (e.g. landsliding) or are strongly linked to them (e.g. floods). Models that can better predict these hazards contribute to the preparedness and resilience of societies. This is especially relevant in the light of climate change.

However, there are also impacts on the long-term. For example, many reservoirs that were constructed for irrigation, hydropower production or other purposes fill up quickly because eroded sediments that are transported by the river become deposited behind the dam. Sediment export models are essential for predicting at what rate these reservoirs may lose capacity and for designing them in the most appropriate ways.

At the Assembly you also gave a presentation on the Prevention and Mitigation of Urban Gullies Project (PREMITURG-project). Could you tell us a bit more about this initiative and its importance?

Urban mega-gullies are a growing concern in many tropical cities of the Global South. These urban gullies are typically several metres wide and deep and can reach lengths of more than one kilometre. They typically arise from a combination of intense rainfall, erosion-prone conditions, inappropriate city infrastructure and lack of urban planning and are often formed in a matter of hours due to the concentration of rainfall runoff.

Urban gully in Mbuji-Maji, Democratic Republic of Congo, September 2008. Credit: Matthias Vanmaercke

Given their nature and location in densely populated areas, they often claim casualties, cause large damage to houses and infrastructure, and impede the development of many (peri-)urban areas.  These problems directly affect the livelihood of likely millions of people in several countries, such as the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, and Angola. Due to the rapid growth of many cities in these countries and, potentially, more intensive rainfall, this problem is likely to aggravate in the following decades.

With the ARES-PRD project PREMITURG, we aim to contribute to the prevention and mitigation of urban gullies by better studying this problem. In close collaboration with the University of Kinshasa in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) and several other partners and institutes, we will study this underestimated geomorphic hazard across several cities in DRC. With this, we hope to provide tools that can predict which areas are the most susceptible to urban gullying so that this can be taken into account in urban planning efforts. Likewise, we hope to come up with useful recommendations on which techniques to use in order to prevent or stabilise these gullies. Finally, we also aim to better understand the societal and governance context of urban gullies, as this is crucial for their effective prevention and mitigation.

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

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

Shape the EGU 2019 scientific programme: The call for sessions is open!

Shape the EGU 2019 scientific programme: The call for sessions is open!

Do you enjoy the EGU’s annual General Assembly but wish you could play a more active role in shaping the scientific programme? Now is your chance!

From today, until 6 Sep 2018, you can suggest:

  • Sessions (with conveners and description),
  • Short Courses, or;
  • Modifications to the existing skeleton programme sessions

Plus from now until 18 January 2019, you can propose townhall meetings. It’s important to note that, for this year’s General Assembly, session proposals for Union Symposia and Great Debates are due by 15 August 2018.

Explore the EGU 2019 Programme Groups (PGs) to get a feel for the already proposed sessions and to decide which PG would be the best fit for your session. When proposing a session, it’s strongly encouraged to form convener teams that reflect diversity in countries/institutes, gender and career level. A minimum of two conveners  and a maximum of five conveners per session is generally desirable.

Does your idea for a session fall under the remit of two (or more) PGs? Co-organization is possible and encouraged between groups! Put your session proposal into one PG, and you will be able to choose other PGs that you believe should be approached for co-organization.

EGU introduced the programme group Interdisciplinary Events (IE) in 2016, which has now been renamed to Inter- and Transdisciplinary Sessions (ITS). ITS looks for links between disciplines in a coordinated and coherent effort, trying to create new approaches that would not be possible if handled separately. ITS has four sub-programme groups that highlight new themes each year. If you plan to propose an Inter- and Transdisciplinary Session, please submit your proposal in programme group ITS and indicate relevant other programme groups in the session description or comment box. For ITS sessions we kindly ask to identify another programme group that becomes the scientific leader of the event. Accepted ITS sessions will be part of the session programme of the scientific leader in addition to the ITS programme.

The PG officers are on-hand to answer questions about the appropriateness of a specific session topic, so don’t hesitate to contact them if you have queries! You can also find more information about the call for sessions (and the organisation of the scientific programme in general) on the EGU 2019 website.

The EGU’s 2019 General Assembly, takes place in Vienna from 7 to 12 April, 2018. For more news about the upcoming General Assembly, you can also follow the offical hashtag, #EGU19, on our social media channels.