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November GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

November GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around the web

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.

Major stories

Earth’s red and rocky neighbor has been grabbing a significant amount of attention from the geoscience media this month. We’ll give you the rundown on the latest news of Mars.

The NASA-led InSight lander, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, touched down on the Red Planet’s surface last week, causing the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) control room to erupt in applause, fist pumps, and cool victory handshakes.

The lander, equipped with a heat probe, a radio science instrument and a seismometer, will monitors the planet’s deep interior. Currently, no other planet besides our own has been analysed in this way.

While scientists know quite a bit about the atmosphere and soil level of Mars, their understanding of the planet’s innerworkings, figuratively and literally, only scratches the surface. “We don’t know very much about what goes on a mile below the surface, much less 2,000 miles below the surface down to the center,” explains Bruce Banerdt, a scientist at JPL, to the Atlantic.

By probing into Mars’ depths, researchers hope the mission gives insight into the evolution of our solar system’s rocky planets in their early stages and helps explain why Earth and Mars formed such different environments, despite originating from the same cloud of dust.

“Our measurements will help us turn back the clock and understand what produced a verdant Earth but a desolate Mars,” Banerdt said recently in a press release.

The InSight lander launched from Earth in May this year, making its way to Mars over the course of seven months. Once reaching the planet’s upper atmosphere, the spacecraft decelerated from about 5,500 to 2.4 metres per second, in just about six minutes. To safely slow down its descent, the lander had to use a heatshield, a parachute and retro rockets.

“Although we’ve done it before, landing on Mars is hard, and this mission is no different,” said Rob Manning, chief engineer at JPL, during a livestream. “It takes thousands of steps to go from the top of the atmosphere to the surface, and each one of them has to work perfectly to be a successful mission.”

This artist’s concept depicts NASA’s InSight lander after it has deployed its instruments on the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The InSight lander is currently situated on Elysium Planitia, a plane near the planet’s equator also known by the mission team as the “biggest parking lot on Mars.” Since landing, the robot has taken its first photos, opened its solar panels, and taken preliminary data. It will spend the next few weeks prepping and unpacking the instruments onboard.

The devices will be used to carry out three experiments. The seismometers will listen for ‘marsquakes,’ which can offer clues into the location and composition of Mars’ rocky layers. The thermal probe will reveal how much heat flows out of the planet’s interior and hopefully show how alike (or unalike) Mars is to Earth. And finally, radio transmissions will demonstrate how the planet wobbles on its axis.

In other news, NASA has also chosen a landing site for the next Mars rover, which is expected to launch in 2020. The space agency has announced that the rover will explore and take rock samples from Jezero crater, one of the three locations shortlisted by scientists. The crater is 45 kilometres wide and at one point had been filled with water to a depth of 250 metres. The sediment and carbonate rocks left behind could offers clues on whether Mars had sustained life.

What you might have missed

By analysing radar scans and sediment samples, a team of scientists have discovered a massive crater, hidden underneath more than 900 metres of ice in northwest Greenland. After surveying the site, scientists say it’s likely that a meteorite created the sometime between 3 million and 12,000 years ago.

The depression under Hiawatha Glacier is 31 kilometres wide, big enough to hold the city of Paris. At this size, the crater is one of the top 25 largest craters on Earth; it’s also the first to be found under ice. An impact of this size significant mark on the Earth’s environment. “Such an impact would have been felt hundreds of miles away, would have warmed up that area of Greenland and may have rained rocky debris down on North America and Europe,” said Jason Daley from Smithsonian Magazine.

Links we liked

The EGU Story

This month, we have announced changes to the EGU General Assembly 2019 schedule, which aim to give more time for all presentation types. Check our news announcement for more information. In other news, we have opened applications to the EGU General Assembly 2019 mentoring programme, and are advertising a job opportunity for geoscientists with science communication experience to work at the meeting.

Also this month, we opened the call for applications for EGU Public Engagement Grants, and have announced the creation of the EGU Working Group on Diversity and Equality. Finally, we’ve published a press release on a new study that looked into whether data on seabird behavior could be used to track the ocean’s currents.

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.

A better framework for disasters

A better framework for disasters

The end of the Northern hemisphere summer tends to be a good time to regroup from natural hazards, as the frequency and intensity of storms, as well as the incidence of wildfires, tends to trail off. At the time of writing, however, Hurricane Willa had just crashed into Mexico, while Typhoon Yutu has just hit the Northern Mariana Islands so hard that any equipment designed to record wind-speed had been swept away. Both storms rapidly strengthened, and the latter was described by the US National Weather Service as ‘likely [to] become the new yard stick by which future storms will be judged.’

Super Typhoon Yutu (24 October 2018) making its way towards the Northern Mariana Islands, a territory of the United States. (Photo: Joshua Stevens/NASA Earth Observatory)

What if we changed the way we think about such events, though? What if, instead of focusing on the wind-speed of a typhoon or the magnitude of an earthquake, the first points of discussion were about the human aspect and impact associated with a specific event. How would this summer’s events be framed? It’s a crucial distinction; natural disaster is in some ways a paradox in terms – although the hazard, or physical manifestation, of a hurricane or earthquake is natural, the impacts, and thus the disaster, are entirely a result of human exposure and vulnerability. Let’s first explore some of the most dramatic themes from this summer’s disasters, and then try and put them in this new human context.

What links this summer’s events?

The recent Hurricanes – Yutu, Willa, Florence and Michael – encapsulate well the intensity and frequency at which we’ve seen disasters come over the last few months. Earthquakes, storms, droughts and wildfires have all caused havoc in a hugely diverse spectrum of locations, and while the specter of natural hazards is always present in many parts of the world, there seems to be something more intense and urgent with respect to this summer’s catastrophes, especially in the media coverage.

The availability of smartphones and the proliferation of social media use means we can see ever more easily from the safety of our homes what others experience in terror during disasters; who could forget the scarring imagery from the earthquake and tsunami in Lombok in September, as houses were tossed about like toys as the ground turned to liquid.

Elsewhere, Japan experienced a plethora of hazards as flooding, typhoons, landslides, earthquakes and drought brought a whole range of challenging conditions which caused a large number of fatalities, despite Japan’s status as one of the best prepared countries in the world for natural hazards.

Much of the media discussion related to disasters has focused on the links between hazards and climate change, and whether the severity of events like Hurricane Florence can be attributed in part to anthropogenic emissions. While it has historically proven difficult to attribute the strength of different storms to climate change, this summer marked the first time scientists attempted it in earnest while an event was taking place – some researchers argued that the rainfall forecast for Hurricane Florence was 50% higher than it would otherwise have been, although such estimates are still in their infancy. What is clearer from scientific predictions of future climate change is that storms will likely be stronger, wetter and slower moving, suggesting similar intense storms could become more normal.

Beyond tropical storms, records were broken by other catastrophes. The Northern hemisphere wildfire season was among the worst we’ve ever experienced on record, at least in terms of acreage burned. Californian fires were so intense that smoke was noticeable on the East Coast, while the extent of fire in western Canada was second only to the cataclysmic fires last year. Abnormally warm temperatures in Scandinavia prompted wildfires to break out north of the Arctic circle, an extremely rare and concerning occurrence.

A different way to think about catastrophes

While it’s interesting and important to discuss the potential for increased storm severity as a result of climate change, it seems that this should only form a part of the larger discussion: how will trends in climate co-evolve with trends in human exposure and vulnerability to hazards? Similarly, why focus on the numbers associated with a disaster – the earthquake magnitude, the depth of flooding, acres of forest burned – when we could instead look at who has been impacted, and how to prevent this in the future.

It’s especially important to frame the ‘cost’ of a given event in this context. Often, we think of cost in either loss-of-life or financial terms, but it’s worth considering those as functions of exposure and vulnerability. For example, Hurricane Florence, which recently made landfall on the US eastern seaboard, is likely to cost  40-50 billion US dollars. Compare this to Hurricane Maria, which devastated Puerto Rico in 2017; some estimates for the cost of the storm were around 100 billion US dollars. While Hurricane Maria cost roughly twice as much as Florence, the relative impact on Puerto Rico was far greater than that value would imply. The vulnerability of the economy of Puerto Rico to a disaster of that scale was far higher than the mainland US; with a GDP of over 10 trillion US dollars, the US economy can absorb shocks like Florence, but the GDP of Puerto Rico declined by a massive 8% in the aftermath of Maria. It is worth noting that Puerto Rico is in fact a territory of the US, and received federal funding to assist with recovery – so the economic impact might even have been more severe without it.

U.S. Customs & Border Protection & FEMA personnel deliver food and water to isolated Puerto Rico residents after their bridge was destroyed by Hurricane Maria in the mountains around Utuado, Puerto Rico (Photo: U.S. Air Force/Master Sgt. Joshua L. DeMotts via FEMA)

We can build the same framing for loss of lives; countries with well-developed disaster response and recovery mechanisms suffer significantly fewer fatalities in the face of a similar magnitude event to a poorly equipped country, all things being equal. This kind of social vulnerability to disaster is difficult to quantify, and encompasses a range of aspects including cultural awareness of natural hazards and healthcare expenditure, but it has to be considered alongside the trends in hazard intensity.

I would argue that coverage of (and research related to) disasters needs to shift away from the headline numbers, like skyrocketing costs or the increasing intensity of storms and wildfires, and instead discuss whether disasters are hitting harder in places that are more vulnerable, or whether the relative economic or human exposure to a given type of disaster is worsening or not. While it’s fascinating to see images of multiple hurricanes over a single basin, it’s an incomplete picture unless the risk is incorporated.

Flash flood impacts in Peru after torrential rain in 2013 (Photo: Galeria del Ministerio de Defensa del Perú via Flickr)

Reframing our vision of disasters would put the focus squarely on where inequality and climate change interact; if more vulnerable developing countries or regions are expected to be more exposed to disasters under a changing climate, then there is real potential for inequalities to be exacerbated – and this is indeed what the UN anticipates will occur. More fundamentally, reframing would help us shift away from a coldly analytical perspective of ‘disasters by the numbers’ and instead consider where the worst impacts would be, and who the people at risk are. While trends in the developed world indicate fewer and fewer deaths from disasters over the last 100 years, many countries don’t have the same capacity to absorb shocks.

The human tendency to dwell on the extraordinary, and the ephemeral nature of modern news coverage certainly encourages reporting to focus on the records broken by a given event. Perhaps it’s futile to add another voice to the many that have already asked for more context and temperance from such coverage, but it seems important to highlight that there may be other ways to cover disasters; those affected may benefit greatly, in both the long and short term.

Robert Emberson is a Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and a science writer when possible. He can be contacted either on Twitter (@RobertEmberson) or via his website (https://robertemberson.com/)

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.