February GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from across the web

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, as well as unique and quirky research news, this monthly column aims to bring you the best of the Earth and planetary sciences from around the web.

Major stories

The biggest story in Europe right now is the bone-chilling cold snap sweeping across the continent. This so-called ‘Beast from the East’ sharply contrasts with the Arctic’s concerningly warm weather. Scientists believe these warming events are related to the Arctic’s winter sea ice decline, which makes the region more vulnerable to warm intrusions from storms.

While a cold front covered most of Europe, warm air invaded the Arctic last week.
Credit: Climate Reanalyzer

However, we also wanted to highlight a couple of big stories from earlier in the month that may be less fresh in your memory.

Falcon Heavy

This month Elon Musk, the founder, CEO and lead designer of SpaceX, captivated a global audience when his company successfully launched the Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA.

The numbers associated with the rocket are staggering. SpaceX reported that the spacecraft’s 27 engines generated enough power to lift off 18 Boeing 747 ‘Jumbo Jets.’ The Falcon Heavy is currently the most powerful launch vehicle in operation and second only to the Saturn V rocket, which dispatched astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 70s. The Guardian reports that the rocket “is designed to deliver a maximum payload to low-Earth orbit of 64 tonnes – the equivalent of putting five London double-decker buses in space.” Despite the rocket’s immense payload capacity, Musk opted to send just one passenger, a spacesuit-donned mannequin aptly named ‘Starman.’ The dummy sits aboard a cherry red Tesla Roadster with David Bowie tunes blasting from the speakers.

While Starman embarked on its celestial journey, two of the rocket’s three boosters successfully returned to the space centre unscathed via controlled burns. The third booster failed to land on its designated drone ship and instead crashed into the Atlantic Ocean at nearly 500 kilometers per hour.

SpaceX currently plans to fine-tune the Falcon Heavy and work on its successor, the Big Falcon Rocket, which Musk hopes could be used to shuttle humans to the Moon, Mars, or across the world in record time.

In a news report, BBC News listed some of the other possibilities that SpaceX could pursue with a rocket this size. Two of which include:

  • “Large batches of satellites, such as those for Musk’s proposed constellation of thousands of spacecraft to deliver broadband across the globe.
  • Bigger, more capable robots to go to the surface of Mars, or to visit the outer planets such as Jupiter and Saturn, and their moons.”

And what’s in store for Starman? Scientists estimate that the Tesla Roadster will orbit around the sun for millions of years, likely making close encounters with Earth, Venus, and Mars. They also report a small chance that the Tesla could face a planetary collision with either Earth (6 percent chance) or Venus (2.5 percent chance) in the next million years. However, even if the Tesla can escape collisions, it won’t be able to avoid radiation damage.

Cape Town’s water crisis

On 13 February South Africa declared Cape Town’s current water crisis a national disaster. Plagued by a three-year drought, the coastal city has been close to running out of water for some time, but this new announcement from government officials comes after reevaluating the “magnitude and severity” of drought. This reclassification means that the national government will now manage the crisis and relief efforts.

The declaration came a few weeks following Cape Town’s new water conservation measures, which limits individual water consumption to 50 litres a day. For comparison, residents from the UK use on average 150 litres of water per person daily. US citizens each consume on average more than 300 litres of water per day.

These new regulations, coupled with recent water use reductions and minor rainfall, will now push ’Day Zero,’ when Cape Town essentially runs out of water, from 12 April to 9 July. Day Zero more specifically marks the date in which the city’s primary water source, six feeder dams, is expected to drop below 13.5 percent capacity. At this level, the dams would be considered unusable and the government would cut off homes and businesses of tap water. Instead, the city’s four million residents would be forced to collect daily 25-litre water rations at one of the 200 designated pick-up points. If the city reaches this day, it would become the first modern city to run out of municipal water.

Scientists believe that Cape Town’s severe drought, considered the worst in over a century, is likely a result of Earth’s changing climate. In 2007 the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry warned that the area would likely experience hotter and drier seasons with more irregular rainfall due to climate change. However, experts note that the drought alone is not to blame for the national disaster. Poor water infrastructure, reluctance from the government to act on drought warnings, and inequality are also substantially responsible for the current crisis.

“What is now certain is that Cape Town will become a test case for what happens when climate change, extreme inequality, and partisan political dysfunction collide,” reports The Atlantic.

A dried up section of the Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town, South Africa, on January 20, 2018. Credit: The Atlantic

In order to ‘Defeat Day Zero’ Cape Town officials hope to limit city water consumption to 450 million litres per day, but as of now residents use on average 526 million litres of water. In addition to promoting water conservation techniques, the city is also rushing to construct desalination plants, implement wastewater recycling, and drill into aquifers within the region. The latter initiative deeply concerns ecologists, who argue that depleting these groundwater resources would endanger dozens of endemic species and threaten the ecosystems unique diversity.

Other news stories of note

The EGU story

Early this month we issued a press release on research published in one of our open access journals. The new study reveals novel insights into Earth’s ozone layer.

“The ozone layer – which protects us from harmful ultraviolet radiation – is recovering at the poles, but unexpected decreases in part of the atmosphere may be preventing recovery at lower latitudes, new research has found. The new result, published today in the European Geosciences Union journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, finds that the bottom part of the ozone layer at more populated latitudes is not recovering. The cause is currently unknown.”

This month also saw the online release of the 2018 General Assembly scientific programme, which lists nearly 1000 special scientific and interdisciplinary events as well as over 17,000 oral, PICO and poster sessions taking place at this year’s meeting. The EGU issued a statement stressing that all scientific presentations at the General Assembly have equal importance, independent of format.

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.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Winter threatens to freeze over fieldwork

Imaggeo on Mondays: Winter threatens to freeze over fieldwork

This photo was taken during a fieldwork campaign following the mainshock of the deadly seismic sequence that struck central Italy starting from 24 August 2016. The magnitude 6.2 earthquake severely damaged nearby towns, claimed more than 290 lives and injured nearly 400 people in its wake.

As a geologist from the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology, I was in charge of measuring the manifestations of the seismic shaking (mainly fractures and landslides) on the territory. Some of the most relevant fractures were located along the mountain ridge formed by Monte Vettore (in the background of the photo) and Monte Porche (on which the photo was taken).

The new snow and the lowering temperature signaled that winter was approaching. The changing season also meant that my colleagues and I would have to rush the survey before the snow buried even the deepest fractures.

By Roberto Vallone, a technologist at the National Institute of Geophysics and Volcanology in Italy

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

Geopolicy: Combating plastic pollution – research, engagement and the EU Plastic Strategy

Geopolicy: Combating plastic pollution – research, engagement and the EU Plastic Strategy

Awareness around the prevalence of plastic pollution, particularly in our oceans, has been growing over the last few years. This is not surprising considering that plastic production has surged from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes in 2014 and models have shown that this number will double again within the next 20 years in a business as usual scenario. Furthermore, research conducted by the European Commission estimated that Europeans generate a combined 25 million tonnes of plastic waste annually with less than 30% being collected for recycling.

All this sounds quite overwhelming but the real problem is, while we can estimate the production of plastic with some certainty, it is extremely difficult to know exactly how pervasive plastic pollution is on a global scale and how it is impacting human health and our environment. There are a huge number of researchers from a variety of scientific disciplines currently working on these issues. Some prominent research areas related to plastic pollution include:

  • Microplastics – a plastic pollutant that we still understand relatively little about. Microplastics are small plastic particles (<1 mm) that originate from larger plastic waste erosion and through the abrasion of synthetic fibres commonly used in clothing. A 2017 study on microplastics found that 80% of the drinking water samples collected on five different continents tested positive for the presence of plastic fibre. The exact environmental and health implications of microfibres still isn’t clear.
  • Location and movement – Understanding the location and transport pathways of plastic pollution can help us estimate how much there is, where it is and how it might be impacting the ecosystem. Unfortunately, the location of most plastic pollution is still unknown. Recent research suggests that there are roughly 300 billion pieces of floating plastic in the polar ocean while other research shows a significant amount of plastic is entering the food web.

A bottle dropped in the water off the coast of China is likely to be carried eastward by the north Pacific gyre and end up a few hundred miles off the coast of the US. Photograph: Graphic. Credit: If you drop plastic in the ocean, where does it end up? The Guardian. Original Source: Plastic Adrift by oceanographer Erik van Sebille. Click to run.

  • Lithosphere – Although the location of some plastics is unknown, others are now being found where we would least expect them… as part of the lithosphere! A new type of stone (plastiglomerate) has recently been discovered in Hawaii. This stone, which the research team believes is a result of burning plastic debris in an open environment, was found to be primarily composed of melted plastic, beach sediment, basaltic lava fragments and organic debris.

The methods used to communicate plastic pollution research, and its potential impact on the environment and human health, have been extremely effective in both mobilising citizens to reduce their own plastic use and is showing policymakers that the public wants a large-scale transformation.

As a result, plastic pollution is now being tackled by the EU Plastics Strategy, a political action that was largely driven by research and the subsequent public advocacy.

What is the EU Plastics Strategy?

The EU Plastics Strategy was adopted on 16 January 2018 after research into the extent and impacts of plastic pollution was conducted by a research team commissioned by the European Commission. The strategy aims to change the way plastic products are designed, used and produced within the EU. The strategy also outlines the European Commission’s primary goal of a 55% plastic recycling rate, with all plastic packaging in Europe recyclable or reusable, by 2030.

To achieve this, a €350m budget for research into innovative plastic design, production and collection has been reserved with the additional possibility of a tax on unsustainable plastic production.

Furthermore, the strategy is proposing better recycling programmes across all EU countries, clearer labelling on packaging so consumers fully understand its recyclability, easier access to tap water in public areas to reduce the demand for bottled water, and a ban on microplastics in cosmetics and personal care products.

With these aims, the European Commission hopes that the EU Plastic Strategy will reduce plastic pollution while also help the EU transition into a circular economy and reach their goals on sustainable development, global climate and industrial policy.

There’s still a long way to go

The release of the Plastics Strategy is just the beginning of the EU’s fight against plastic pollution – it’s the blueprint for legislation that will be implemented over the next couple of years. You can view the European Commission’s timeline of actions, directives and policies related to the strategy here.

Although the Plastics Strategy is only the first step towards implementing legislation, it is a strong signal to investors and the private sector that there is a lucrative market in plastic alternatives and recycling technology. This means that there is likely to be more money pumped into finding solutions on top of the €350m reserved for plastic research and innovation by the EU.

What’s the positive take home message?

Despite plastic pollution being a challenging and frightening problem, it is also a fantastic example of how researchers, civil society, policymakers and the private sector play different but complimentary roles in creating large-scale change. With the initial crisis highlighted by researchers, mobilised by civil society, acted upon by policymakers and invested in by the private sector, the threat of plastic pollution can also be seen as the beginning of a success story – we just have to follow it through!

Further information