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Imaggeo on Mondays: Inside the whale’s mouth

Imaggeo on Mondays: Inside the whale’s mouth

Often there are moments in our lives when we are reminded of the strength and magnitude of our environment, whether that’s trekking through a mountain range or gazing at the horizon from the ocean shore. Yet arguably there are few things that can make you feel as small as a particularly powerful summer storm.

“The atmosphere is undoubtedly one of the most dynamic components in the Earth System. Nothing can demonstrate the power of nature to an observer as well as a strong thunderstorm rolling in,” said Michiel Baatsen, a climate researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands who snapped this week’s featured photo. Besides being a climate researcher, Baatsen is also a weather enthusiast and storm chaser, fascinated by severe weather and thick towering cloud formations.

He and a team of friends will often hit the road, travelling across Western Europe in pursuit of extreme thunderstorms that pass the continent. “In these ventures, we try to capture some inspiring scenes and have been amazed many times by the things we end up seeing,” said Baatsen.

This photo was taken in June last year while Baatsen was traveling through the northeastern corner of the Netherlands. He and his friends were searching for a thunderstorm that had crossed the border from Germany, but the local humidity was relatively high, making visibility too poor to properly locate the approaching storm. “After several failed attempts to locate the approaching storms, we realised the conditions were so hazy that they completely obscured the leading cloud structures,” said Baatsen. But once the first clouds passed overhead, the conditions suddenly changed and the sky became clearer, revealing a dramatic view of the storm.

If you feel as if the storm feature in the photo is about to engulf you, you’re not alone. This kind of cloud structure is called a shelf cloud, but it’s also often referred to as a ‘whale’s mouth’, since the formations often give the impression of being consumed by a giant whale.

‘Whale’s mouth’ clouds take shape when cold, dense air surging out of a thunderstorm collides with warm air entering the storm. When the two currents make contact, the air goes upward and condenses into a thick sheet of clouds. This kind of formation appears at the leading edge of a thunderstorm, a harbinger to the incoming rainfall.

For Baatsen and his colleagues, the storm offered a short window between its first gusts and the subsequent rainfall, allowing them to observe this natural phenomenon. “With the whale’s mouth being overhead, there was a brief moment to appreciate this scene during which one was basically trapped in a cage surrounded by the rain rolling in on one side and the haze drawing away on the other side,” said Baatsen.

By Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

GeoTalk: Bárbara Ferreira – reflections on a science communication career with EGU

GeoTalk: Bárbara Ferreira – reflections on a science communication career with EGU

GeoTalk interviews usually feature the work of early career researchers, but this month we deviate from the standard format to speak to Bárbara Ferreira, EGU’s Media and Communications Manager. Bárbara has been an integral part of the EGU since September 2011, from coordinating science communication between the Union, journalists and the public at large, to overseeing many of EGU’s outreach activities, such as Planet Press, the EGU Public Lecture and the mentoring programme.

She’ll soon be starting an exciting opportunity at the European Southern Observatory, but before she goes, we’ve asked her to reflect on some of her most memorable times with EGU.  

Before we get stuck in, could you introduce yourself and tell us more about your career path? How did you first get into science communication and outreach?

When I was about 13 or 14 years old, I had a natural sciences’ teacher at school (in Leiria, Portugal, where I’m from) who taught us astronomy and encouraged us to ask as many questions as we wanted in class. Even though I was one of those teenagers who are generally too shy to ask questions, I loved that we could query him about what we were learning to our hearts’ content. So that’s how I decided I wanted to be an astronomer.

That lasted until about halfway through my PhD (Mathematical Astrophysics, Cambridge, UK), when I learnt what it was actually like to work in astronomy. I found that what I enjoyed the most was writing papers – because they helped me put my research into a broad context, – and giving talks – because I got to present my work to others. I found that I liked to communicate science more than doing science, and I preferred to have a broad overview about many topics than to have deep knowledge about one small area of research.

I continued (and finished) my PhD, but since I was already pretty certain I did not want to stay in research, I started looking around for ways to get experience in science communication. I went to science writing and science communication workshops, I wrote for a couple of science magazines associated with the University of Cambridge, I did an internship at the Parliamentary Office for Science and Technology in London, I taught a summer science course to school students, I started a science blog, and I did some freelance work as a science editor. The experience I gained eventually helped me land an internship in science journalism at the European Southern Observatory (ESO), near Munich. These varied short-term stints helped me trial out different forms of science communication and outreach so that I could figure out exactly what it was that I wanted to do.

What motivated you to be a part of the EGU office? 

After a couple of months at my ESO internship, I knew I wanted to be an institutional science communicator and I knew I had the experience and skills to look for a longer-term position. And after having travelled to and lived in quite a few countries in the previous year, I also knew I wanted to stay put. So the opportunity to be a science communicator at the EGU office in Munich fitted like a glove. I have to say I had never heard about the EGU before, coming as I did from an astronomy rather than a geoscience background, but the more I read about the organisation, the more excited I got about the possibility of landing that job. I especially liked that the EGU covered so many different scientific subjects, which meant there was potential to learn about research in subjects from earthquakes and volcanoes to biogeosciences and climate science. The fact that EGU organises the largest geoscience conference in Europe and publishes so many open access journals were also motivating factors to apply.

The EGU Executive Office staff in 2012, celebrating the Union’s 10th anniversary at the Munich headquarters. From left to right: Edvard Glücksman (Science Communications Fellow), Karen Resenberger (Secretary), Philippe Courtial (Executive Secretary), Bárbara Ferreira (Media and Communications Officer).

In your eight years of working with EGU, in what ways have you seen the Union grow the most?

So many ways! Brace yourselves for a long answer!

I guess I should start by talking about how much more the EGU does in terms of communication and outreach now than when I started. There was one EGU blog back then, and a Twitter account, but they focused mostly on the General Assembly. There were press conferences at the meeting, but no press releases year-round nor much in terms of policy or public engagement activities. Now we have a very popular and successful EGU blog and some 20 division and network blogs, we have multiple active social media accounts (like Twitter, Facebook and Instagram) with more than 60,000 followers combined, and many of our divisions and journals have a presence on a number of social networks. We now have a more modern logo and website, with new content every week/day, and a monthly newsletter that brings that content to EGU members at the end of each month. We have highlight articles and press releases that regularly bring research published in EGU journals to broader audiences. We have a dynamic press centre at the General Assembly with press conferences that highlight science presented at the meeting to a growing number of journalists and members of the public. In the new Imaggeo, we have a modern home for some of the most beautiful geoscience images around the web. We have public engagement events, in Vienna and elsewhere in Europe, we offer public engagement grants and science journalism fellowships, and organise a number of activities to bring scientists and policymakers together.  And so much more (really, check the various sections of the EGU website!), all thanks to the hard work of volunteer EGU officers, especially past and current members of the Outreach Committee, and staff at the EGU office, including past employees.

Growing our communication and engagement efforts was also possible because the EGU was growing in other ways (growth that is now supported by a long-term strategy).

The EGU General Assembly went from about 11,200 participants at my first meeting in 2012 to over 16,000 this year. And it became more engaged with society too, with more sessions, and a lot more interest from participants, in science for policy, science communication, and science education, not to mention an artists in residence programme.

The same can be said of EGU publications, five of which were launched after I started, including one on Geoscience Communication. The awards and medals the EGU gives out grew too, with the addition of the Katia and Maurice Krafft Award for geoscience outreach and engagement, and the Angela Croome Award, for Earth, space and planetary sciences journalism.

The EGU also gained a committee in the past eight years, the Topical Events Committee (which did not exist as a stand-alone committee before), and with it came new conference series, new training schools, and the Galileo Conferences. And we gained a working group, focused on the ever-more important issues of diversity and equality in (geo)science.

Last but not the least, the EGU grew immensely in the ways in which it represents and supports early career scientists who now have a permanent contact point at the EGU office, have representation in Council, and have representation at division level in nearly all divisions.

What’s something about the EGU that you wish more people knew about?

How much time, effort and dedication people who work voluntarily for the Union put into it. At present, there are only seven employees at the EGU office. And, yes, our long-term, symbiotic partners Copernicus, who have far more employees than we do, support us greatly, handling the EGU General Assembly logistics and publishing the EGU journals. But everything else, from defining the scientific programme of the EGU General Assembly to evaluating proposals to EGU conferences or grants and coordinating and managing improvements in EGU publications, is (mostly) done by volunteers. I wish more people knew how much time these volunteers, together with EGU and Copernicus staff, spend carefully examining and discussing feedback people provide on EGU activities, namely the EGU General Assembly, to make sure we can fix what’s wrong the following year and improve what’s right. How much enthusiasm is put into organising the GIFT programme for teachers, or discussing new and exciting education and outreach activities. How much effort is put into promoting open access and interactive public peer-review.

Aside from that, I wish more people knew that we are so much more than a conference and do so much outside of the EGU General Assembly: read my answer to the previous question if you haven’t yet!

As part of your role, you highlight new research published in EGU journals through press releases year-round and press conferences at the EGU General Assembly. What have been some of the most memorable releases and press conferences to you?

One of the most memorable press releases we’ve published was a story on hair ice. It was not groundbreaking science, but it was a curious piece of research about a type of ice you can see in some places under certain weather conditions, usually in winter. The paper happened to come out in the middle of summer, and I thought not many journalists would report on it, so I decided to post the release on Reddit, to give it an extra boost. I’d done it with other releases before, without much success, but that one took off. By the time I looked at the Redddit thread again, there were hundreds of comments about how cool the phenomenon was, how much hair ice resembled a certain US politician’s hair, and about Reddit’s “hug of death”. The release reached the Reddit frontpage and the EGU website crashed with so many visitors trying to access the page in a short time. We had another release reach the frontpage recently, but the hair ice story is still by far our most popular in terms of number of pageviews.

The EGU General Assembly 2017 Press Centre with (from left to right) Keri McNamara, Kai Boggild, Bárbara Ferreira, Hazel Gibson and Laura Roberts Artal.

At the General Assembly, there were many popular and memorable press conferences. I think two stories stand out in particular because they were sort of quirky and unique and I knew, as soon as I read the abstracts, that they would be hits with journalists. One was a presentation by Paul Williams back in 2013 about research done by him and Manoj Joshi on climate change increasing turbulence on transatlantic flights. Everyone knows that aviation contributes to climate change, but finding out that climate change could impact aviation was somewhat surprising, and I think that’s why the story was so popular. Another memorable story was ‘Screaming clouds’, a presentation given by Helene Muri on behalf of Svein Fikke, who lead research on how mother-of-pearl clouds may have inspired the iconic Scream by painter Edvard Munch. I randomly found that abstract in the 2017 General Assembly programme by searching for the word “painting”.

What has been some of your favorite parts of working with EGU? What will you be missing the most?

I will miss the people the most. I’ve had the pleasure to meet and work with amazingly talented and dedicated individuals during the past 8 years, who also happen to be incredibly nice and good people. Having the chance to work together with EGU office and Copernicus staff, EGU past and present volunteers and the regulars at the General Assembly press centre has probably been the best part of working with EGU.

I will miss the science too. It could be depressing at times to write about yet another paper or feature yet another abstract highlighting all the different ways in which humans are affecting our planet, but it was also rewarding to have the opportunity to bring that ever-more important research to broader audiences. And I’ve loved having the chance to learn and write about topics as varied as glacial geoengineering, water’s role in the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, or great-earthquake hotspots.

Now it’s time to go back to astronomy.

Interview by Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

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: Monitoring Antarctica’s ocean current

Imaggeo on Mondays: Monitoring Antarctica’s ocean current

This week’s featured image depicts a quiet and still oceanic landscape in Antarctica, but polar scientists are studying how energetic and variable the ocean currents in this part of the world can be.

In this picture, the marine research vessel RRS James Clark Ross is making its way through the Lemaire Channel, a small passage off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula, south of the southernmost tip of Chile. This channel is about 11 kilometres long and just 1,600 metres wide at its narrowest point, bordered by a spectacular range of steep cliffs.

At the time this photo was taken, the ship was headed to the Rothera Research Station, a British Antarctic Survey base on the white continent’s peninsula. The scientists aboard the vessel are part of a decades-long research campaign surveying the ocean current surrounding Antarctica, known as the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC). The ACC is the world’s strongest and most influential current, transporting 165 million to 182 million cubic metres of water every second and connecting most of Earth’s major oceans. As such, any changes to the ACC have the potential to impact other marine environments around the world.

For more than 25 years, scientists from the UK’s National Oceanography Centre (NOC) have ventured south each Antarctic summer to measure the ocean’s physical features in one region of the Southern Ocean, called the Drake Passage. Spanning just 800 kilometres between the Falkland Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula, the Drake Passage is the shortest crossing from Antarctica to any other landmass. This makes it a prime spot to survey the ocean’s currents, as the flow is constricted to a narrow geographical region.

So far, researchers have completed 24 survey trips across the passage. The data collected during these trips have been used to assess how physical features of the ACC change, both throughout a single year and over the course of several years. Yvonne Firing at NOC leads the latest expeditions as part of the UK funded ORCHESTRA project. The continuation of this monitoring is helping scientists study how the ocean stores excess heat and carbon. No other ocean basin has been monitored so consistently, making the Drake Passage the most comprehensively studied part of the Southern Ocean.

By Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

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/.