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GeoSciences Column: Don’t throw out that diary – medieval journals reveal the secret of lightning

GeoSciences Column: Don’t throw out that diary – medieval journals reveal the secret of lightning

When 17th century Japanese princess Shinanomiya Tsuneko took note of an afternoon storm in her diary one humid Kyoto summer, she could not have imagined her observations would one day help resolve a longstanding scientific conundrum. Statistical analysis of her journals has revealed a link between lightning strikes and the solar wind – proving that your teenage diary could contain good science, as well as bad poetry.

The mystery of lightning

Lightning has amazed and alarmed weather-watchers since time immemorial. So it may come as a surprise that we still have little idea what sets off one of nature’s most thrilling spectacles.

Any school child will tell you lightning is caused by a difference in electrical charge. Up- and downdrafts cause molecules of air and water to bump against each other, exchanging electrons. When the potential difference is big enough, all those separated charges comes rushing back in one big torrent, superheating the air and turning it into glowing plasma – that’s what we call lightning.

So far, so sensible. But there’s a problem. Air is an insulator – and a very good one at that. To get the current flowing, charged particles need some sort of bridge to travel across. And it’s this bridge that has vexed lightning scientists – fulminologists – for decades.

The most prominent theory points the finger at cosmic rays – heavy, fast-moving particles that impact the Earth from space. Packing energy roughly equivalent to a fast-bowled cricket ball into one tiny atom-sized package, a cosmic ray can shred electrons from their nuclei with ease. The spectacular Northern Lights reveal the effect this can have on the atmosphere: columns of ionised air, perfect conductors for charges to travel along.

Most cosmic rays originate in deep space, hurled at close to the speed of light from distant supernovae. The extreme heat of the sun’s surface also sends more than a few our way – the so-called ‘solar wind’ – but because these particles are more sluggish than galactic cosmic rays, researchers at first doubted they could have much effect on the atmosphere. Lightning’s time in the sun was yet to come.

27 days of summer

Anyone who has lived a year in Japan will be familiar with the country’s long, sultry summers – and its famously methodical Met Agency. It’s a good place to go looking for lightning.

Inspired by some tantalising work out of the UK, Hiroko Miyahara and colleagues across Japan went sifting through their own Met data for patterns that might suggest a connection between solar weather and lightning strikes. They had their eye out for one pattern in particular – the 27-day cycle caused by the sun’s rotation. This is just short enough that the solar wind streaming from any given region of the sun is fairly constant, limiting the impact of solar variability on the data. It’s also short enough to fit comfortably within one season, which helped the authors compare apples with apples over long timespans.

Armed with the appropriate controls, and a clever method they developed for counting lightning strikes that smooths over patchy observations, Miyahara and the team got stuck into the data for Japan circa 1989–2015. Early in 2017, in a paper published in Annales Geophysicae, they presented their results. The 27-day signal stood out to four standard deviations: a smoking-gun proof that solar weather and lightning strikes are connected.

But how is the relatively sluggish solar wind able to influence lightning strikes? The key, according to Miyahara, is the effect the solar wind has on the Earth’s magnetic field – sometimes bolstering and sometimes weakening it, allowing the more potent galactic cosmic rays to wreak their mayhem.

A window into the past

Of course, the 27-day cycle is only the shortest of the major solar cycles. It is well known that the intensity of the sun varies on an 11-year cycle, related to convection rates in the solar plasma. Less understood are the much longer centurial and millennial cycles. The sun passed through one such cycle between the late Middle Ages and now. The so-called Little Ice Age, coinciding with a phase of low sunspot activity known as the Maunder Minimum, precipitated agricultural collapse and even wars across the world – and solar physicists believe we may be due for another such minimum in the near future, if it hasn’t begun already.

Understanding these cycles is a matter of no small importance. Unfortunately, pre-modern data is often scattered and unreliable, hampering investigations. A creative approach is called for – one that blends the disciplines of the human historian and the natural historian. And this is exactly what Miyahara and the team attempted next.

Shinanomiya Tsuneko was born in Kyoto 1642 – just before the Maunder Minimum. A daughter of the Emperor, Shinanomiya became a much-respected lady of the Imperial Court, whose goings-on she meticulously recorded in one of the era’s great diaries. Luckily for Miyhara and his colleagues in the present day, Shinanomiya was also a lover of the weather, carefully noting her observations of all things meteorological – especially lightning.

Figure and text from Miyahara et al, 2017b: “a) Group sunspot numbers around the latter half of the Maunder Minimum. b) Solar cycles reconstructed from the carbon-14 content in tree rings. The red and blue shading denotes the periods of solar maxima and minima, respectively, used in the analyses. c) Periodicity of lightning events during the solar maxima shown in panel (b). The red dashed lines denote 2 and 3 SD during the solar maxima, and the red shaded bar indicates the 27–30-day period. d) Same as in panel c) but for solar minima.”

Shinanomiya’s diary is one of five Miyahara and the team consulted to build a continuous database of lightning activity covering an astonishing 100 years of Kyoto summers. Priestly diaries, temple records, and the family annals of the Nijo clan were all cross-referenced to produce the data set, which preserves a fascinating slice of Earth weather during the sun’s last Grand Minimum.
Analysis of this medieval data revealed the same 27-day cycle in lightning activity observed in more recent times – proof of the influence of the solar wind on lightning frequency. The strength of this signal proved to be greatest at the high points of the sun’s 11-year decadal sunspot cycle. And the signal was almost completely absent between 1668 and 1715 – the era of the Maunder Minimum, when sunspot numbers are known to have collapsed.

Put together, the data provide the strongest proof yet that solar weather can enhance – and diminish – the occurrence of lightning.

Lightning strikes twice

Miyahara and the team now hope to expand their dataset beyond the period 1668 – 1767. With a little luck – and a lot of digging around in dusty old archives – it may be possible to build a record of lightning activity around Japan from before the Maunder Minimum all the way up to the present day. A record like this, covering a grand cycle of solar activity from minimum to maximum and, perhaps soon, back to a minimum again, would help us to calibrate the lightning record, providing a powerful new proxy for solar activity past and future. It may even help us to predict the famously unpredictable – lightning strikes injure or kill a mind-boggling 24,000 people a year.

As for the rest of us, the work of Miyahara and his colleagues should prompt us to look up at the sky a little more often – and note down what we see. Who knows? Three hundred years from now, it could be your diary that sets off a climate revolution – though it may be best to edit out the embarrassing details first.

by Rohan S. Byrne, PhD student, University of Melbourne

References

Miyahara, H., Higuchi, C., Terasawa, T., Kataoka, R., Sato, M., and Takahashi, Y.: Solar 27-day rotational period detected in wide-area lightning activity in Japan, Ann. Geophys., 35, 583-588, https://doi.org/10.5194/angeo-35-583-2017, 2017a.

Miyahara, H., Aono, Y., and Kataoka, R.: Searching for the 27-day solar rotational cycle in lightning events recorded in old diaries in Kyoto from the 17th to 18th century, Ann. Geophys., 35, 1195-1200, https://doi.org/10.5194/angeo-35-1195-2017, 2017b.

GeoSciences Column: The dirty business of shipping goods by sea

“Above the foggy strip, this white arch was shining, covering one third of the visible sky in the direction of the ship's bow,” he explains. “It was a so-called white, or fog rainbow, which appears on the fog droplets, which are much smaller then rain droplets and cause different optic effects, which is a reason of its white colour.”

Shipping goods across the oceans is cost-effective and super-efficient; that’s why over 80% of world trade is carried by sea (according to the International Maritime Organisation). But the shipping industry also contributes significant amounts of air pollutants to marine and coastal environments.

A new study, published in the EGU’s open access journal Earth System Dynamics, reports on concentrations of sulphur, nitrogen, and particulate matter (PM), from 2011 to 2013, in the Baltic and North Seas – one of the busiest shipping routes in the world. The study aims to provide policy-makers with better knowledge about how shipping impacts local environments. The end-goal being better industry regulations and technology to make shipping more sustainable in the long-term.

The reality of shipping goods by sea

In the past two decades reduction pledges, like the Paris Climate Accord, and strict regulation have driven down air pollutants from land-based emissions across Europe, but greenhouse-gas emissions from the shipping industry are not subject to as strict international protocols.

And that’s a problem.

It is estimated that there are about half a million ships in operation at present, which together produce almost one billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year (that’s more than Germany emits in the same period!). Over the past 20 years, emissions of pollutants from shipping in the Baltic Sea and North Sea have increased.

Worryingly, economic growth in the region means shipping is only set to increase in the future. In fact, the European Commission predicts that shipping emissions will increase between 50% and 250% by 2050.

Why should you care?

While cruising the high seas, ships emit a dangerous cocktail of pollutants. When burnt, their fuels emit sulphur dioxide and as ship engines operate under high pressure and temperature, they also release nitrogen oxides. Combined, they are also the source of particulate matter of varying sizes, made up of a mixture of sulphate (SO4), soot, metals and other compounds.

The authors of the Earth System Dynamics paper, led by Björn Clareman of the Department of Earth Sciences at Uppsala University, found that international shipping in the Baltic Sea and the North Sea was responsible for up to 80% of near-surface concentrations of nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide in 2013.

Total emissions of SOx and deposition of OXS (oxidized sulphur) from international shipping in the Baltic Sea and North Sea in 2011. From B.Claremar et al., 2017.

In addition, the team’s simulations show that PM from shipping was distributed over large areas at sea and over land, where many people will be exposed to their harmful effects. The highest concentrations are found along busy shipping lanes and big ports. In total, shipping was responsible for 20% of small sized PM (known as PM2.5) and 13% of larger particles (PM10) during the studied period.

These pollutants have harmful effects on human health: It is thought that living close to the main shipping lanes in the Baltic Sea can shorten life expectancy by 0.1 to 0.2 years. Sulphur oxides in particular, cause irritation of the respiratory system, lungs and eyes; while a 2007 study estimated that PM emissions related to the shipping industry cause 60,000 deaths annually across the globe.

Environmentally, the effects of shipping pollution are concerning too. Deposition of nitrate and sulphate causes the acidification of soils and waters. The brackish waters of the Baltic Sea make them highly susceptible to acidification, threatening diverse and precious marine ecosystems.

The current problem

Legislating (and then monitoring and enforcing) to limit the negative impact of shipping emissions is tricky given the cross-border nature of the industry. For instance, currently, there is no international regulation for the emission of PM. However, the International Maritime Organisation’s (as well as others; see Claremar, B., et al., 2017 for details of all regulations) does impose limits on sulphur and nitrogen emissions from ships (in some parts of the world).

Low-sulphur fuels and switching to natural gas are an effective way to control emissions. However, operators can also choose to fit their vessels with an exhaust gas treatment plant, or scrubber, which uses sea water to remove sulphur oxides – the by-products of high-sulphur fuels. So called open-loop scrubbers release the dirty exhaust water back into the ocean once the tank is cleaned. The practice is known to increase ocean acidification globally, but particularly along shipping lanes.

As of 2021, the transport of goods via the North and Baltic Seas will be subject to the control of nitrogen and sulphur emissions, which could decrease nitrogen oxide emissions by up to 80%. However, the study highlights that the continued use of scrubber technology will significantly offset the benefits of the new legislation. If cleaner alternatives are not implemented, total deposition of these harmful particles may reach similar levels to those measured during the 1970s to 1990s, when shipping emissions were largely unregulated.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

 

Those who have an interest in this subject might want to contribute an EU Public consultation on the revision of the policy on monitoring, reporting and verification of CO2 emissions from maritime transport. The International Maritime Organisation (IMO) adopted the legal framework for the global data collection system (IMO DCS) in July 2017. This Consultation is now reviewing the situation and would like input on things such as the monitoring of ships’ fuel consumption, transparency of emission data and the administrative burden of the new system. While the Consultation is not specifically aimed toward scientists, it may interest EGU researchers who are working in the marine, climate and atmospheric sciences sectors.

 

Refences and resources

Claremar, B., Haglund, K., and Rutgersson, A.: Ship emissions and the use of current air cleaning technology: contributions to air pollution and acidification in the Baltic Sea, Earth Syst. Dynam., 8, 901-919, https://doi.org/10.5194/esd-8-901-2017, 2017.

Lower emissions on the high seas. Nature, 551, 5–6, https://doi:10.1038/551005b, 2017

Corbett, J. J., Winebrake, J. J., Green, E. H., Kasibhatla, P.,Eyring, V., and Lauer, A.: Mortality from ship emissions: a global assessment, Environ. Sci. Technol., 41, 8512–8518, 2007.

Dashuan, T., and Shuli, N.: A global analysis of soil acidification caused by nitrogen addition, Environ. Res. Lett., 10, 024019, https://doi:10.1088/1748-9326/10/2/024019, 2015

What is Ocean Acidification? Ocean Facts by NOAA

Reducing emissions from the shipping sector, Climate Action by the European Commission

GeoSciences Column: Forests in flux – log-jams in the Amazon

GeoSciences Column: Forests in flux – log-jams in the Amazon

Collapsing dams are a staple of disaster films, but the form that these take in natural systems is also surprisingly varied. Streams and rivers can be blocked by a range of rapid and gradual inputs. One of the lesser-known causes of stream blockage is through the accumulation of large woody debris – tree trunks and large branches – to form a log jam.

The impact of these jams on river geomorphology can be varied, but in some extreme cases, when they break, large flood waves can wash out huge downstream areas. This kind of hazard is often poorly understood, so a new study exploring how logjams in Bolivia can drive downstream flooding published in Earth System Dynamics by Umberto Lombardo provides an important addition to our understanding.

To form a log-jam, tree trunks and other large woody debris needs to end up in the river through erosion and transport processes. The majority of the rivers in the assessed area meander back and forth, which encourages erosion of the river banks; this can topple trees into the river. This bank erosion provides the source of the woody debris which then gets stuck in the channel, beginning the construction of a log-jam.

Once the jam is formed there is potential for flooding, which has important consequences for the surrounding forest. Behind the dam, silt and sand accumulates, and once the river either breaks the dam or redirects around it, sediment is also distributed downstream, along with the woody debris.

Using satellite imagery, Lombardo explores a chunk of the Bolivian part of the Amazon rainforest to look for the effects of log-jam induced flooding on forest dynamics. He shows in this study that the sudden influx of mud and silt onto the forest floor characteristically results in the die-off of much of the vegetation. Where floods occur repeatedly, the dense rainforest ecosystem is replaced by a drier, more savannah-like ecosystem.

Evolution of the Cuberene River. The river flows from southwest to northeast. From 1995 to 2016, the location of the log-jams propagated upriver, along the two rivers that form the Cuberene. By 2016, large areas that were forested in 1995 had been transformed into savannah. An east–west road crossing the Cuberene in 1995 is completely obliterated in the 2016 image. Also notice how the light green areas in early stages of the successional process in 1995 are already forested by 2016. From Lombardo U., 2017.

The flood-induced ecosystem change is not an isolated one, either; in the study area, the amount of forest killed by floods is nearly as great as the amount lost to deforestation for agricultural growth, and the near-annual recurrence of these events in many rivers means that it is a consistent cause of ecological shifts.

From a human perspective, these log-jams are a risk that may not be appreciated. Recent studies have shown that human driven deforestation can accelerate the rate at which river banks in tropical regions erode; so while the removal of trees may initially reduce the propensity for log-jams in extensively managed stretches of river, the faster rate of meandering may also lead to log-jam formation further down the line sooner than we might think. A clearer understanding of such river systems, where log-jam formation and coupled flooding is part of the normal evolution of the stream system, would serve us well in rapidly developing tropical countries that rely on forest ecosystems.

While the dynamics of log-jams have been studied in more temperate regions, this study represents a significant step into the unknown in tropical regions. The Amazon as a whole is a crucial component of the global carbon cycle, so a clearer understanding of the feedbacks between rivers, erosion, and the forest ecosystem will allow us to create more nuanced models of the rainforest dynamics.

The more scientists study forests, the clearer it becomes that these ecosystems regularly undergo significant disturbances simply as part of their natural cycles. Forest fires and pest outbreaks can disrupt a given stand of forest; log-jams are another example of a disturbance, this time closely associated with river dynamics. Forests renew and regenerate themselves at a range of scales, from individual trees to whole swathes of woodland, and log-jams provide an additional mechanism that can lead to die-off of mature forest and replacement by new growth.

By Robert Emberson, a science writer based in Canada

References

Lombardo, U.: River logjams cause frequent large-scale forest die-off events in southwestern Amazonia, Earth Syst. Dynam., 8, 565-575, https://doi.org/10.5194/esd-8-565-2017, 2017

GeoSciences Column: Catch of the day – what seabirds can tell us about the marine environment

GeoSciences Column: Catch of the day – what seabirds can tell us about the marine environment

Off the coast of Germany, a male northern gannet (for ease, we’ll call him Pete) soars above the cold waters of the North Sea. He’s on the hunt for a shoal of fish. Some 40km due south east, Pete’s mate and chick await, patiently, for him to return to the nest with a belly full of food.

Glints of silver just below the waves; the fish have arrived.

Pete readies himself.

Body rigid, wings tucked in close – but not so close that he can’t steer himself – he dives toward the water at a break-neck speed, hitting almost 100 km per hour. Just as he is about to hit the water, Pete folds his wings, tight, against his body. He pierces the water; straight as an arrow, fast as a bullet, and makes his catch.

The first of the day.

He’ll continue fishing for the next 8 to 10 hours.

As he does so, a tiny logger weighing no more than 48 g, will continually track Pete’s position and with every dive, the temperature of the sea water.

Why equip birds with sensors?

The physical properties of the oceans, such as water temperature, play an important role in determining where organisms are found in the vastness of the oceans. Life tends to concentrate in regions where there are temperature changes, be that as waters get deeper or across large horizontal distances.

Sea surface temperatures also reveal vital information about the global climate system, as they help scientists understand how the oceans are connected to the atmosphere. The data are used in weather forecasts and simulations of how the Earth’s atmosphere changes over time.

By mounting light-weight loggers on diving mammals (it needn’t be only birds, seals and penguins are good candidates too), scientists can learn a lot from the animal’s behaviour, while at the same time collecting data about the physical properties of the oceans.

That is why a German research team, led by Stefan Garthe of the Research & Technology Centre (FTZ) at Kiel University, has been tagging and monitoring the behaviour of a colony of northern gannets breeding on the German island of Heligoland. As a top marine predator, changes in the foraging behaviour of gannets can indicate changes in food resources, often linked to variations in the marine environment.

Flying northern gannets with a Bird Solar GPS logger attached to the tail feathers. Photo: K. Borkenhagen. From Garthe S., et al. 2017.

Their work is part of a larger project called The Coastal Observing System for Northern and Arctic Seas, or COSYNA for short, which aims to better understand the complex interdisciplinary processes of northern seas and the Arctic coasts in a changing environment.

The German Bight

The waters of the northern seas and Arctic coasts are governed by a large range of natural processes and variables, such as wind, sea surface temperature and tides. In addition, the North Sea in particular, is heavily used for human activities: from shipping, to tourism, through to exploitation (and exploration) of food resources, energy and raw materials – making it of huge economic value and importance.

But it is precisely this heavy human activity which is contributing to change and disruptions in the region. Scientists know that the biochemistry, food webs, ecosystems and species of the North Sea are being altered. However, the causes of the change aren’t well quantified or understood and their consequences poorly defined. This means mitigating and adapting to the changes is proving hard for scientists and policy-makers alike.

Where progress and nature collide

In an area so heavily influenced by anthropogenic activities, it’s not unlikely that observed changes to the properties of the waters of the North Sea and the German Bight (where Heligoland is located) are driven, to some extent, by human actions.

Since 2008, 12 offshore wind farms have become operational in the German Bight and a further five are under construction; 15 more have been given building consent too. However, what impact (if any) wind farms have on seabirds is a hotly debated topic. Their effect on the hydrodynamics, biogeochemistry and biology of the North Sea is also poorly understood.

To unravel some of these questions, Garthe and his team tracked the movements of three individual gannets near existing wind farms in the North Sea. To find out their exact position, a GPS (mounted on the bird’s tail) was used and the flight tracks plotted on a map which also displayed the wind farms of the German Bight.

Overlap of flight patterns for the three northern gannets shown with the locations of wind farms in the German Bight. From Garthe S., et al. 2017.

Their results, published in the EGU’s open access journal Ocean Science, show that all three birds largely avoided the three wind farms just north of Heligoland. Though they visited sporadically, more often than not, the gannets flew around wind farms which also happened to be further away from their breeding grounds.

The team will now use the data acquired, which is of a much higher resolution than what has been available before, to understand how wind farms in the North Sea are affecting long-term seabird behaviour.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer.

References and further reading

Garthe, S., Peschko, V., Kubetzki, U., and Corman, A.-M.: Seabirds as samplers of the marine environment – a case study of northern gannets, Ocean Sci., 13, 337-347, https://doi.org/10.5194/os-13-337-2017, 2017.

Baschek, B., Schroeder, F., Brix, H., Riethmüller, R., Badewien, T. H., Breitbach, G., Brügge, B., Colijn, F., Doerffer, R., Eschenbach, C., Friedrich, J., Fischer, P., Garthe, S., Horstmann, J., Krasemann, H., Metfies, K., Merckelbach, L., Ohle, N., Petersen, W., Pröfrock, D., Röttgers, R., Schlüter, M., Schulz, J., Schulz-Stellenfleth, J., Stanev, E., Staneva, J., Winter, C., Wirtz, K., Wollschläger, J., Zielinski, O., and Ziemer, F.: The Coastal Observing System for Northern and Arctic Seas (COSYNA), Ocean Sci., 13, 379-410, https://doi.org/10.5194/os-13-379-2017, 2017.

Why do scientists measure sea surface temperature? (NOAA)

Scientists are putting seals to work to gather ocean current data (PRI)

Daunt, F., Peters, G., Scott, B., Grémillet, D., and Wanless, S.: Rapid-response recorders reveal interplay between marine physics and seabird behaviour, Mar. Ecol.-Prog. Ser., 255, 283–288, 2003.

Grémillet, D., Lewis, S., Drapeau, L., van der Lingen, C. D.,Huggett, J. A., Coetzee, J. C., Verheye, H. M., Daunt, F.,Wanless, S., and Ryan, P. G.: Spatial match–mismatch in the Benguela upwelling zone: should we expect chlorophyll and sea-surface temperature to predict marine predator distributions?, J. Appl. Ecol., 45, 610–621, 2008.

Wilson, R. P., Grémillet, D., Syder, J., Kierspel, M. A. M., Garthe, S., Weimerskirch, H., Schäfer-Neth, C., Scolaro, J. A., Bost, C.- A., Plötz, J., and Nel, D.: Remote-sensing systems and seabirds: their use, abuse and potential for measuring marine environmental variables, Mar. Ecol.-Prog. Ser., 228, 241–261, 2002.