When you think about the last century of geoscience, what comes to mind? Perhaps Alfred Wegener’s theory of continental drift? Or Inge Lehmann’s discovery of Earth’s solid inner core?
Over the last 100 years, geoscientists have made incredible contributions to our understanding of the Earth, the solar system, and beyond. The science community has explored uncharted territory, challenged previously held conceptions, provided vital information to policymakers, worked to address societal challenges, and put forth paths for sustainability. Through the years, researchers have also worked to promote diversity, inclusion, transparency, and accessibility in the geosciences. Many Europe-based scientists have been at the forefront of these advances.
In this series of interviews, scientists across different disciplines and scientific fields reflect on the last 100 years of Earth, space and planetary sciences in Europe and share their perspectives on the future:
Karsten Gohl: Head of Geophysics Section at the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) Helmholtz Center for Polar and Marine Research
One of the broadest achievements in the geosciences in the last century is the transformation from individual discipline-oriented foci to an understanding of the interacting components of the entire Earth system in its complexity.
Anny Cazenave: Director for Earth Sciences at the International Space Science Institute in Switzerland, and emeritus scientist at the Laboratoire d’Etudes en Géophysique et Océanographie Spatiales (LEGOS)
Current research in Earth sciences needs to account for the impacts of human activities on the Earth System… as well as for the impacts of natural systems on human societies.
In this blog post, Raffaele Bonadio, a PhD student in seismology at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in Ireland, shares a particularly formidable experience in the field while deploying instruments aboard a research vessel in the North Atlantic Ocean. Credit: Raffaele Bonadio
Fieldwork can take geoscientists to some of the most remote corners of the Earth in some of the harshest conditions imaginable, but stories from the field hardly make it into a published paper. In this blog post, Raffaele Bonadio, a PhD student in seismology at the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies in Ireland, shares a particularly formidable experience in the field while aboard a research vessel in the North Atlantic Ocean.
We knew it would be stormy that night. At the previous evening’s briefing, the captain of the ship, composed and collected, notified us that we needed to make a diversion from the planned route to avoid getting too close to the eye of the storm, “We’ll slow down the vessel…” “kind of five metres swell expected”. He was calm and comfortable. The crew members were calm and comfortable. We, the guest scientists, were not.
Why were we in the middle of the ocean?
I was part of a team of researchers from the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies working on the project SEA-SEIS (Structure, Evolution and Seismicity of the Irish offshore). Our task was to deploy a suite of seismometers on the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean from our research vessel, the RV Celtic Explorer, to investigate the geological evolution of the Irish offshore.
A map of the North Atlantic Ocean, showing the locations of seismometers deployed by the team’s research vessel, the RV Celtic Explorer. Credit: Raffaele Bonadio
Why study the Irish offshore?
The tectonic plate that Ireland sits on was deformed and stretched to form the deep basins offshore. The plate then broke, and its parts drifted away from each other, as the northern Atlantic Ocean opened. Hot currents in the convecting mantle of the Earth caused volcanic eruptions and rocks to melt 50-100 km below the Earth’s surface. These hot currents may have come from a spectacular hot plume rising all the way from the Earth’s core-mantle boundary (at 2891 km depth) to just beneath Iceland.
What do ocean bottom seismometers do?
Ocean bottom seismometers record the tiny vibrations of the Earth caused by seismic waves, generated by earthquakes and ocean waves. As the waves propagate through the Earth’s interior on their way to the seismic stations, they accumulate information on the structure of the Earth that they encounter. Seismologists know how to decode the wiggles on the seismograms to obtain this information. With this data, they can do a 3D scan (tomography) of what’s inside the Earth.
One of the research team’s seismometers being dropped into the North Atlantic Ocean. The instruments sink to the bottom of the ocean, where they measure the Earth’s movement. Credit: SEA-SEIS Team
In this project, we want to better understand how the structure of the tectonic plate varies from across the North Atlantic and what happens beneath the plates. And is there an enormous hot plume beneath Iceland, responsible for the country’s volcanoes today and the formation of Giant’s Causeway in Ireland? This is what we hope we will find out!
Experiencing an ocean storm
We were aboard the ship about 9 days and had just deployed “Ligea”, the 14th seismometer before the captain had notified us that a storm was heading our way.
While we were told in advance of the approaching storm, there was no way we could have imagined what it would be like to be in the middle of a stormy ocean. I had only heard some stories and I didn’t fully believe them…
I was awakened by the sound of my table lamp smashing on the ground, even the 15 cm protection edge around the table couldn’t help. The closet door opened and hit the wall. I managed not to fall off the bed, pointing my legs and make a crack with my back. I heard one of my colleagues laughing in the next cabin after a loud thud. “Did he just fall off the bed?” I thought to myself – his laugh did sound a bit of hysterical.
I realized a big wave had crashed on the side of the ship. I couldn’t believe that water and metal crashing together could make such a harsh bang. The previous evening was a continuation of bangs, splashes, sprinkles, bloops, clangs, and creaks … but even with all these noises and disturbances, I managed to sleep, exhausted from dizziness and sea-sickness.
I checked the clock on the wall: it was 3:20 in the morning. I looked at the porthole, due to the vertical movement my cabin was underwater half of the time. I walked through the cabin, trying to reach the toilet. “Oh, I wish they made the cabin smaller! I can’t reach both walls with my arms,” I said to myself. I opened the tap to refresh my face, the flowing water danced right and left across the basin. I then climbed up to the deck, I had to literally climb up the stairs. Up there I couldn’t see anything but darkness; I couldn’t see the boundary between the sky and the sea.
More than a week had passed since our departure, yet my body had still not adapted to this incessant movement. My eyes could not follow my body and my stomach did not react well, I couldn’t see anymore what was horizontal and what wasn’t. However, I wasn’t even scared, I believed nobody on the ship was (or is it only that I wanted to believe this?). It wasn’t fear, but rather an unceasing uncomfortable feeling: I knew I was more than 900 km from any dry land, in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, on a 66 m long vessel; I knew the captain and the crew were working hard to take us far from the storm. I was not scared…
In a few hours we were planning to deploy an ocean bottom seismometer, a very sophisticated device that is able to operate at huge pressures at the bottom of the ocean; released from the ship it would sink and install itself on the seafloor 4 km under the surface of the waves. In other words, a 200 kg ‘little orange elephant’, as the students who supported us from land every day liked to call it! “Will we be able to deploy? Will we be able not to crash the instrument on the sides? Will we instead be able to keep our balance and walk up to the deck?”
“Yes, we will.”
How did this look like? Find out more in this video:
So, what did we accomplish?
As part of the SEA-SEIS project, led by Dr. Sergei Lebedev, our research team successfully deployed 18 seismometers at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean. The network covers the entire Irish offshore, with a few sensors also in the UK and Iceland’s waters. The ocean-bottom seismometers were deployed between 17 September and 5 October, 2018, and will be retrieved in April of 2020.
Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, major geoscience headlines, as well as unique and quirky research, this monthly column aims to bring you the latest Earth and planetary science news from around the web.
The impact that humans have left on the planet’s landscape is so profound, that up to one million plant and animal species are at risk of extinction, many within decades, a new 1,500-page report backed by the United Nations has found. This serious decline in biodiversity would have far-reaching consequences for the planet’s ecosystems and the global human population.
The report, assembled by Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) with the aid of hundreds of scientists, is one of the most comprehensive reviews of the fate of Earth’s biodiversity. It follows up on an environmental assessment from 2005, but the new report goes further by analysing how biodiversity, climate and human wellbeing are connected to each other.
The results show that roughly 75 percent of land and 66 percent of marine areas have been “significantly altered” by human activities, including urban development, agriculture, logging, fishing, mining, and hunting. “The rate of global change in nature during the past 50 years is unprecedented in human history,” the authors of the assessment write. This kind of change has already taken its toll on Earth’s environment, as the average abundance of species in terrestrial ecosystems has dropped by at least 20 percent, mostly within the last century.
The rate of global species extinction is already tens to hundreds of times faster than the average extinction rate over the last 10 million years and will only increase unless governments issue sweeping environmental measures measures, says the analysis.
Climate change poses as an additional threat to many species that rely on certain climate conditions for survival. The new report estimates that 2 °C of global warming above pre-industrial levels would put 5 percent of all species at risk of extinction. If global temperature rise goes past 4.3 °C, extinction risk would extend to 16 percent of Earth’s species.
The review also warns how this kind of loss in biodiversity would pose significant risks to human populations. “For a long time, people just thought of biodiversity as saving nature for its own sake,” said Robert Watson, chair of the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services, to the New York Times. “But this report makes clear the links between biodiversity and nature and things like food security and clean water in both rich and poor countries.”
Earth’s diverse environment provides several benefits and services to human communities, from absorbing carbon dioxide and filtering drinking water to being a source of tourism and medicine. Without the resources, services, and protections from our natural surroundings, humans could face a number of challenges, including increased food instability and environmental disaster.
Stumps on the valley in Madagascar caused by deforestation and slash and burn type of agriculture. Photo credit: Dudarev Mikhail/Shutterstock.com
The authors of the report note that we can still avoid severe loss in global biodiversity if nations adopt “transformative changes” to how humans interact with the environment, such as cutting down on wasteful consumption and pollution, reducing our agricultural impact, and curtailing logging and fishing activities.
David Obura, one of the main authors of the review, said to the Guardian: “We tried to document how far in trouble we are to focus people’s minds, but also to say it is not too late if we put a huge amount into transformational behavioural change. This is fundamental to humanity. We are not just talking about nice species out there; this is our life-support system.”
What you might have missed
This month has also produced some interesting new findings about the geology of our closest astronomical neighbor, the Moon.
The first mission to the far side of the Moon, led by the China National Space Administration, may have discovered pieces the Moon’s mantle exposed on its surface. If confirmed, the material would be the first unaltered samples of the Moon’s interior layer collected and could give scientists clues about the Moon’s early history.
China’s Yutu 2 rover moving across the far side of the moon. Credit: China National Space Administration
The materials were found by a rover deployed by the Chinese space agency as it was surveying a crater that scientists believe was formed by an impact event. If powerful enough, such a collision could have brought parts of the Moon’s mantle to the surface. By analysing data taken by the rover’s visible and near-infrared spectrometer, the researchers identified olivine and low-calcium pyroxene. These minerals haven’t typically been found on the lunar surface, suggesting that the samples may have come from the mantle.
“The findings lend weight to the theory that the Moon’s surface was once molten but separated into layers as it solidified, leaving largely lighter minerals in the surface crust and burying denser ones in its mantle,” Nature reported.
Meanwhile, a new analysis of decades old data from NASA suggests that the Moon may still be tectonically active today. About 50 years ago, Apollo astronauts installed seismometers on the Moon’s surface. The instruments picked up the rumbling of shallow moonquakes, but the activity couldn’t be properly explained at the time. Recently, scientists have found that a number of these moonquake were located within 30 km of fault scarps, cliff features that form when one side of a fault has thrust up or slipped down. The cliffs were identified in 2010 from images taken by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
This visualization of Lee Lincoln scarp is created from Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter photographs and elevation mapping. The scarp marks the location of a relatively young, low-angle thrust fault. Credits: NASA/Goddard/SVS/Ernie Wright
The findings suggest that these quakes may have been triggered by these faults as a result of both internal heat escaping the Moon and Earth’s gravitational pull. This would imply that the Moon has more internal heat and is more tectonically active than previously believed. “Knowing more about that activity, including where the moon’s surface is still on the move, could help scientists identify where — and where not — to land future spacecraft,” says Science News.
This month we introduced Geoscience Days, a new EGU series of national public engagement events. The EGU Geoscience Days are events organised around Europe that aim to raise awareness of the Earth, planetary and space sciences to students, researchers, the wider public and national policymakers. The first event is taking place today (31 May) at the Romanian Academy in Bucharest, Romania.
The deadline to nominate the best deserving researchers for the EGU 2020 awards and medals is next month, on the 15th of June. To increase diversity in the group of EGU awardees and medallists, we encourage the EGU membership to consider gender, geographical and cultural balance when nominating outstanding Earth, planetary and space scientists at various career stages.
And don’t forget! To stay abreast of all the EGU’s events and activities, from highlighting papers published in our open access journals to providing news relating to EGU’s scientific divisions and meetings, including the General Assembly, subscribe to receive our monthly newsletter.
There is no doubt that 2018 was packed full of exciting, insightful and informative blog posts. An impressive 382 posts were published across the EGU’s official blog, GeoLog, as well as the network and division blogs!
In December, to celebrate the excellent display of science writing across the network and division blogs, we launched the EGU Blogs competition. From a list of posts selected by our blog editors, we invited you, the EGU Blogs readers, to vote for your favourite post of 2018. We also invited EGU division blog editors and office staff to take part in a panel vote. After more than two weeks of voting, the winners are finally in!
The GD division blog was crowned winner of this year’s public vote for their post on the Global Young Scientists Summit (GYSS) in Singapore! Follow blog contributor Luca Dal Zilio’s experience attending this gathering of over 250 PhD and postdoctoral fellows!
If the start of a new year, with its inevitable resolutions, along with the range and breadth of posts across the EGU Blogs have inspired you to try your hand at a little science writing then remember all the EGU Blogs welcome (and encourage!) guest posts. Indeed, it is the variety of guest posts, in addition to regular features, which makes the blogs a great read! If you would like to contribute to any of the network, division blogs or GeoLog, please send a short paragraph detailing your idea to the EGU Communications Officer, Olivia Trani at email@example.com.