Imaggeo on Mondays: Probing the Pliocene

Imaggeo on Mondays: Probing the Pliocene

The heights we go to for science…

This photograph shows a member of our team preparing to abseil down a cliff in the Charyn Canyon, in the Ili River basin of southeast Kazakhstan. The Charyn River and its tributaries, a branch of the Ili River north of the Tien Shan Mountains, have cut canyons up to 300 metres deep, carving through rocks of different geologic ages, some as old as 540 million years.

The name “Charyn” may derive from local Uighur or Turkic words for “ash tree” or “precipice” respectively, both of which are common in the area.

Charyn Canyon is presently characterized by a cold semi-arid climate, with dry summers and cold winters. However, these conditions are likely to have varied through time, becoming wetter, drier, warmer and cooler in response to major climate systems’ changing intensity and influence over the region.

Our research team investigates the past and present climate systems of the Cenozoic era, our current geological era which began 66 million years ago; the most recent 2.6 million years have been characterised by alternating ice ages and warmer so-called “interglacial” phases, and saw the evolution of humans. More specifically, we study climate systems in one of the most remote regions of Central Asia, known as the Eurasian Continental Pole of Inaccessibility. The area is a challenging place for climate research since it has no marine or ice core records, the most common calendars of ancient climate.

This region is poorly understood yet important within the global climate system, since it lies at the boundaries of the major northern hemispheric climate systems. These systems, such as the Siberian high pressure system and Asian monsoons, are likely to have shifted, expanded and contracted over time. These changes occur in response to factors like mountain uplift, and changes in the Earth’s orbital patterns and incoming solar radiation.

The aim of our study is to reconstruct climatic change over this period. By analysing various chemical and physical characteristics of the sediments, such as their age, magnetism, grain size and chemistry, we can reconstruct quantitative palaeoclimatic variability through time.

Here we focus on an 80-metre thick layer of sediment, which alternates between layers of river-transported gravels and wind-blown dust deposits, known as loess. Younger sedimentary layers have thicker dust deposits, reflecting a long-term aridification trend in the Ili Basin and, more broadly, Central Asia.

Our preliminary results from our fieldwork indicate that the canyon’s sediments represent an uninterrupted representation of the region’s climate from the Pliocene to early Pleistocene (from approximately 4.5 to 1 million years ago).

Achieving a comprehensive geological sampling of the Charyn Canyon was only possible by abseil. Our fieldwork, undertaken from May to June 2017, was a hot and dusty business, but ultimately a lot of fun. Definitely not for those with a fear of heights!

By Kathryn Fitzsimmons, Max Planck Institute for Chemistry, Germany and Giancarlo Scardia, São Paulo State University, Brazil

Imaggeo on Mondays: The place where water runs through rocks

Imaggeo on Mondays: The place where water runs through rocks

Antelope Canyon, located in Arizona, USA, was formed by erosion of the Navajo Sandstone, primarily due to flash flooding and secondarily due to other sub-aerial processes (think of physical weathering processes such as freeze-thaw weathering exfoliation and salt crystallisation). Rainwater runs into the extensive basin above the slot canyon sections, picking up speed and sand as it rushes into the narrow passageways. Over time the passageways are eroded away, making the corridors deeper and smoothing hard edges in such a way as to form characteristic ‘flowing’ shapes in the rock.

The Navajo Sandstone was deposited in an aeolian (wind-blown) environment composed of large sand dunes: imagine a sea of sand, or an erg, as it is known scientifically, not dissimilar to the present Sarah desert landscape. The exact age of the Navajo Sandstone is controversial, with dated ages ranging from Triassic to early Jurassic, spanning a time period between 250 million years ago to approximately 175 million years ago. The difficulty in determining the exact age of the unit lies in its lack of age diagnostic fossils. The Navajo Sandstone is not alone in this quandary, dating is a common problem in aeolian sediments.

“The picture was taken during a three week Southwest USA road trip in summer 2012. One of the highlights was the visit to Antelope slot canyon, which is located on Navajo land east of Page, Arizona. The Navajo name for Upper Antelope Canyon is Tsé bighánílíní, which means the place where water runs through rocks,” explains Frederik Tack, an atmospheric scientist from the Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy and author of today’s Imaggeo on Monday’s photograph.

The erosive processes which form the canyon are still ongoing. There is an elevated risk of flash floods, meaning the canyon can only be visited as part of guide tours.

“The canyon was actually quite crowded which made taking this picture challenging, especially as I wanted to capture the peace and solitude of the landscape,” describes Tack.

The effort was worth it: Waved rocks of Antelope slot canyon was one of the EGU’s 2015 Photo Contest finalists!

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

Imaggeo on Mondays: Carving polar canyons

This week Ian Joughin, a research scientist from the Polar Science Center at the University of Washington, takes us on the polar express to put glacial processes into perspective and find out what makes a moulin…

“Water filled canyon” by Ian Joughin, distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence.

“Water filled canyon” by Ian Joughin, distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence.

This canyon formed when a melt lake on the surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet overflowed and created a stream that extended out toward a crevasse field. This outflow stream filled a crevasse, causing it to fracture under the pressure of the liquid, creating a hydrofracture that ran through the full thickness of the ice sheet. This fracture created a conduit to the base of the ice sheet, known as a moulin, through which the surface water drained to the bed.

Surface water entering a moulin on Athabasca Glacier (a much smaller Moulin than the one what would have drained the Greenland lake). (Credit: Wikimedia Commons user China Crisis)

Surface water entering a moulin on Athabasca Glacier. (Credit: Wikimedia Commons user China Crisis)

Over the course of several years, the turbulent overflow stream melted the ice down to create this canyon. By the time this photo was taken, snow had dammed canyon near the lake outlet, meaning it no longer actively drained the lake.

Most of the water in the photo is from melt at the sides of the canyon. The ice is flowing at approximately 100 m/yr, slowly moving the stream outlet toward higher ground so it is unlikely that the lake will overflow at this location again. And instead, we have found a new canyon forming in a lower part of the lake basin.

By Ian Joughin, University of Washington

The EGU’s open access geoscience image repository has a new and improved home at! We’ve redesigned the website to give the database a more modern, image-based layout and have implemented a fully responsive page design. This means the new website adapts to the visitor’s screen size and looks good whether you’re using a smartphone, tablet or laptop.

Photos uploaded to Imaggeo are licensed under Creative Commons, meaning they can be used by scientists, the public, and even the press, provided the original author is credited. Further, you can now choose how you would like to licence your work. Users can also connect to Imaggeo through their social media accounts too! Find out more about the relaunch on the EGU website.