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

May GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from around 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 Story

In the last couple of weeks of May, the news world was abuzz with the possibility of Donald Trump withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. Though the announcement actually came on June 1st, we’ve chosen to feature it in this round-up as it’s so timely and has dominated headlines throughout May and June.

In withdrawing from the agreement, the United States becomes only one of three countries in rejecting the accord, as this map shows. The implications of the U.S joining Syria and Nicaragua (though, to be clear, their reasons for not signing are hugely different to those which have motivated the U.S withdrawal) in dismissing the landmark agreement have been widely covered in the media.

President Trump’s announcement has drawn widespread condemnation across the financial, political and environmental sectors. Elon Musk, Tesla and SpaceX CEO, was one of many in the business sector to express their criticism of the President’s decision. In response to the announcement, Musk tweeted he was standing down from his duties as adviser to a number of White House councils. While in early May, thirty business CEOs  wrote an open letter published in the Wall Street Journal to express their “strong support for the U.S. remaining in the Paris Climate Agreement.”

In a defiant move, U.S. States (including California, New York and Vermont), cities and business plan to come together to continue to work towards meeting the targets and plans set out by the Paris Agreement. The group, coordinated by former New York City mayor Mark Bloomberg, aims to negotiate with the United Nations to have its contributions accepted to the Agreement alongside those of signatory nations.

“We’re going to do everything America would have done if it had stayed committed,” Bloomberg, said in an interview.

Scientist and learned societies have also been vocal in expressing their criticism of the White House decision. Both Nature and Science collected reactions from researchers around the globe. The EGU, as well as the American Geophysical Union, and many in the broader research community oppose the U.S. President’s decision.

“The EGU is committed to supporting the integrity of its scientific community and the science that it undertakes,” said the EGU’s President, Jonathan Bamber.

For an in-depth round-up of the global reaction take a look at this resource.

What you might have missed

This month’s links you might have missed take us on a journey through the Earth. Let’s start deep in the planet’s interior.

The core generates the Earth’s magnetic field. Periodically, the magnetic field reverses, but what caused it to do so? Well, there are several, competing, ideas which might explain why. Recently, one of them gained a bit more traction. By studying the seismic signals from powerful earthquakes, researchers at the University of Oxford found that regions on top of the Earth’s core sometimes behave like a giant lava lamp. It turns out that blobs of rock periodically rise and fall deep inside our planet. This could affect the magnetic field and cause it to flip.

Meanwhile, at the planet’s surface, the Earth’s outer solid layer (the crust) and upper layer of the molten mantle,  are broken up into a jigsaw of moving plates which pull apart and collide, generating earthquakes, driving volcanic eruptions and raising mountains. But the jury is still out as to when and how plate tectonics started. The Earth is so efficient at recycling and generating new crustal material, through plate tectonics, that only a limited record of very old rocks remains making it very hard to decipher the mystery. A recently published article explores what we know and what yet remains to be discovered when it comes to plate tectonics.

Tectonic plate boundaries. By Jose F. Vigil. USGS [Public domain], distributed by Wikimedia Commons.

Oil, gas, water, metal ores: these are the resources that spring to mind when thinking of commodities which fuel our daily lives. However, there are many others we use regularly, far more often than we realise or care to admit, but which we take for granted. Sand is one of them. In the industrial world it is know as ‘aggregate’ and it is the second most exploited natural resource after water. It is running out. A 2014 United Nations Environment Programme report highlighted that the “mining of sand and gravel greatly exceeds natural renewal rates”.

Links we liked

  • Earth Art takes a whole new meaning when viewed from space. This collection of photographs of natural parks as seen from above is pretty special.
  • This round-up is usually reserved for non-EGU related news stories, but given these interviews with female geoscientists featured in our second most popular tweet of the month, it is definitely worth a share: Conversations on being a women in geoscience – perspectives on what being a female in the Earth sciences.
  • We’ve shared these previously, but they are so great, we thought we’d highlight them again! Jill Pelto, a scientist studying the Antarctic Ice Sheet and an artist, uses data in her watercolous to communicate information about extreme environmental issues to a broad audience.

The EGU story

Temperatures in the Arctic are increasing twice as fast as in the rest of the globe, while the Antarctic is warming at a much slower rate. A new study published in Earth System Dynamics, an EGU open access journal, shows that land height could be a “game changer” when it comes to explaining why temperatures are rising at such different rates in the two regions. Read the full press release for all the details, or check out the brief explainer video, which you can also watch on our YouTube channel.

 

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.

Geosciences column: Making aurora photos taken by ISS astronauts useful for research

Geosciences column: Making aurora photos taken by ISS astronauts useful for research

It’s a clear night, much like any other, except that billions of kilometers away the Sun has gone into overdrive and (hours earlier) hurled a mass of charged particles, including protons, electrons and atoms towards the Earth.  As the electrons slam into the upper reaches of the atmosphere, the night sky explodes into a spectacular display of dancing lights: aurora.

Aurora remain shrouded in mystery, even to the scientists who’ve dedicate their lives to studying them. Photographs provide an invaluable source of data which can help understand the science behind them. But, for aurora images to be of scientific value researchers need to know when they were taken and, more importantly, where.

You’ve got to be in the right place at the right time to catch a glimpse of the elusive phenomenon. In the Northern Hemisphere, aurora season peaks in autumn through to winter. Geographically, the best chance of seeing them is at latitudes between 65 and 72 degrees – think the Nordic countries.

That is unless you are an astronaut on the International Space Station (ISS), in which case, you’ve got the best seat in the house!

The orbit of the ISS means it skims past the point at which aurora intensity is at its peak, which also happens to be the point at which they look their most spectacular. Its orbital speed means it can get an almost global-scale snapshot of an aurora, passing over the dancing lights in just under 5 minutes.

Not as much is known about Aurora Australis (those which occur in the southern hemisphere) as we do about the Northern Lights (visible in the northern hemisphere), because there are far less ground-based auroral imagers south of the equator. The ISS orbit means that astronauts photograph Aurora Australis almost as frequently as Aurora Borealis, helping to fill the gap.

Testament to the privileged viewpoint is the hoard of photographs ISS astronauts have amassed over time – perfect for scientists who study aurora to use in their research.

Time-lapse shot from the International Space Station, showing both the Aurora Borealis and Aurora Australis phenomena. Credit: NASA

Except that, until recently, the ISS photographs were of little scientific value because they aren’t georeferenced. The images are captured by astronauts in their spare time using commercial digital single lenses reflector cameras (DSLRs), which can’t pinpoint the location at which the photographs were taken – they were never intended to be used in research.

Now, researchers at the European Space Agency (ESA) have developed a method which overcomes the problem. By mapping the stars captured in each of the photographs and the timestamp on the image (as determined by the camera used to take the photograph), the team are now able to geolocated the images, giving them accurate orientation, scale and timestamp information.

Despite the success, it’s not a straightforward thing to do. One of the main problems is that the timestamps aren’t always accurate. Internal clocks in DSLRs have a tendency to drift. Over the period of a week they can be out by as much as a minute, making it difficult to establish the location of the ISS when the image was captured. This has implications when creating the star map, as the location of the station is used as a starting point.

To resolve the issue, aurora images which also include city lights can be aligned to geographical maps using reference city markers to get a timestamps accurate to within one second or less. In the absence of city lights, images which also capture the Earth’s horizon are aligned with its expected position instead. The correction works best if both city lights and the horizon can be used.

Errors are also introduced when the star maps can’t be fully resolved (due to the original image being noisy, for example) and because the method assumes that auroras originate from a single height, which isn’t true either.

detailed comparison between the ISS image plotted in Fig. 11 (b) and the contemporaneous image acquired by the SNKQ THEMIS ASI (a) . The original ISS image is plotted in (c) . Red and blue symbols trace the locations of the j shaped arc and northern edge of the main auroral arc, respectively, derived from their locations in the THEMIS image. The features are marked with the same coloured arrows in (c) . The magenta arrows point out a vertical feature projected very differently in (a) and (b) .

A detailed comparison between an ISS image of aurora (a) plotted and (b) the contemporaneous image acquired by the SNK THEMIS ASI [ground-based]. The original ISS image (a) is plotted in (c). For more detail see Riechert, et al., 2016.

Comparing images of an aurora on 4 February 2012, captured both by the ISS crew and a ground-based instrument, has allowed the researchers to test the accuracy of their method. Overall, the results show good agreement, but highlight that the projection of the ISS images has to be taken into account when interpreting the results.

Now, a trove of thousands of Aurora Borealis and Australis photographs can be used by researchers to decipher the secrets of one the planet Earth’s most awe-inspiring phenomenon.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

 

References:

Riechert, M., Walsh, A. P., Gerst, A., and Taylor, M. G. G. T.: Automatic georeferencing of astronaut auroral photography, Geosci. Instrum. Method. Data Syst., 5, 289-304, doi:10.5194/gi-5-289-2016, 2016.

Automatic georeferencing of astronaut auroral photography: http://www.cosmos.esa.int/web/arrrgh

The research was accomplished using only free and open-source software. All the images processed to date are made freely available at htttp://cosmos.esa.int/arrgh, as is the software needed to produce them.

GeoSciences Column: Improving together – science writing and football

GeoSciences Column: Improving together – science writing and football

Writing is something that those pursuing a career in academia are expected to be good at. It is a requirement of the job, yet it is a skill few get any formal training in and simply rely on the old saying that practice makes perfect. But what if there is another way? Mathew Stiller-Reeve is a co-founder of ClimateSnack, a writing group organization, which aims to tackle the problem. In today’s post Mathew considers how the workings of a football team might reflect the successes of the writing groups that started in the ClimateSnack project.

The premise behind the ClimateSnack project is simple: We need to improve our writing in science. But many young researchers do not have access to good training initiatives, especially not continuous ones. So, maybe we should just mobilize ourselves; we can mobilize ourselves by starting writing groups and working together to improve. In ClimateSnack, early career scientists (ECS) start writing groups at their home institute. Participants write short popular science articles (usually 400-500 words), read them aloud, get feedback, and publish online. Several ClimateSnack writing groups sprouted up all over the world, however, only a few truly blossomed. What made some groups work and some not? We analyzed the answer to this question in our new paper. The style of a peer-review paper didn’t allow us to make fancy, lengthy analogies. But on GeoLog, I feel safe using football as an analogy to explain the workings of a writing group, and maybe infuse some of my own personal opinions too.

Football is a team sport, but you can play football completely alone and still become an expert. You can see this when you watch football freestylers (like Indi Cowie in the video) do their incredible tricks. Most of these tricksters likely play football with a whole team, but they don’t have to. The same applies to science writing and communication. You can become an expert in these skills by yourself, and some people prefer this. But for ECS’s who like to work together, ClimateSnack would give them the opportunity to improve as part of a team: a writing group.

But what was needed for the teams to work successfully? And what did we learn from the teams that disbanded after a few training sessions?

Successful football teams have good leadership, and in particular good captains. Good captains bring out the best in their players, encourage them when things get hard and manage conflict. These elements were reflected in the ClimateSnack writing groups. The strong leaders guided the groups and encouraged participants to contribute in sensitive ways. However, strong leaders don’t stick around forever. Just as other football clubs often buy captains, writing group leaders also moved on; they finished PhDs and got jobs far, far away. New captains needed to be found, but this was always a challenge.

Can the workings of a football team reflect the successes of the writing groups that started in the ClimateSnack project? Credit: Syaza , distributed via gify.

Can the workings of a football team reflect the successes of the writing groups that started in the ClimateSnack project? Credit: Syaza , distributed via gify.

I am absolutely not saying that the leaders of the disbanded other groups were poor captains! Even a potentially good captain cannot lead a team if he/she doesn’t know the rules of the game. If the rules are not clear then the whole team cannot play properly together. They need to know where the goal is; they need to understand the game’s objectives. And this is where the ClimateSnack management team (where I am most to blame!) was shortsighted. We failed to properly communicate the objectives and aims of a ClimateSnack writing group and the writing process we suggested.

Even if a football team knows the rules and has a good captain, they won’t get far if morale is low, or if the players haven’t got time to train or turn up for matches. We noticed that a lot of the motivation within writing groups was linked to socializing. Just as some amateur football teams might go to the pub after training, one successful writing group planned their meetings just before the Department coffee break so everyone could socialize after the hard work was done.

What other elements need to be in place for a football team to work?

The right number of players is an absolute necessity. Most people have seen how a football team struggles after a couple of players have been sent off. You may have also heard about players going to other clubs if they don’t get to play enough matches. The ClimateSnack group meetings also faced challenges with the number of participants. One group had so many participants to start with that it became difficult to manage. It is difficult for everyone to get something out of a peer feedback discussion if too many are involved.  In this instance, participants lost interest and numbers decreased steadily and finally to a level where too few attended and the group disbanded. In our Bergen group, we always find that the best discussions happen with 4-6 people at the meetings. If we get far more than this in the future, then we will likely split into smaller discussion groups which work more effectively.

Effective writing groups demand some kind of time commitment from the participants. Good writing requires practice, just like football. Football players often train several times a week. With ClimateSnack, we did not have the luxury of asking the members for this level of commitment. Students are already under pressure from a variety of different sources. They need to complete mandatory courses, collect data, attend conferences, and work as teaching assistants. People who play football have a passion for the game and make time for it. Unfortunately, few young researchers have a passion for writing (cards on the table: I was exactly the same. It took a lot of time before I started enjoying writing). Therefore, something voluntary like a writing group will often fall by the wayside when to-do lists are being compiled.

A football team celebrates together after scoring a goal!

A football team celebrates together after scoring a goal! ( Lewes Ladies 2 BHA 1 4 May 2014. 645 , credit: James Boyes distributed via a href=” https://www.flickr.com/”> flickr).

Some ClimateSnack teams started scoring goals! ClimateSnack participants have published over 100 articles online, some of which articles have appeared in newspapers here in Norway. Many participants feel that their writing has improved. Some participants have even started receiving better peer reviews for their scientific publications. Other participants have also used their new network to organize science communication workshops. Even if many writing groups didn’t find a footing, for some people the concept worked really well. And many people have made good friends!

Just like with many football teams, they are more likely to score more goals if they have generous sponsors. Football clubs need to buy kits, pay for pitch maintenance and travel to play other teams. A writing group project like ClimateSnack ideally needs some funding to let new ideas flourish and allow different groups to interact and learn from each other. The ClimateSnack founders had big ambitions to create an international online community where ECS would interact and peer-review each other’s articles across borders. We secured some funding to update the website, but never to implement the kind of things needed to properly promote an international community.

Despite the challanges we encountered, we have seen that writing groups can be a really effective way to learn writing skills together (like ours in Bergen in the photo). Maybe they are so effective that universities should consider implementing them in curricula for all students at all levels. With this in mind, I’ll indulge with a final football-related analogy. When I was a child, we had to play football at school. I didn’t like it! However, now I appreciate that I got fit and healthier, and I learned skills that I could apply to other sports in the process. You see the link to learning basic writing skills?

Indeed, if you think about it, I could have applied the football team analogy to any aspect of research education: We can learn anything alone, but it can be more enjoyable and rewarding if we learn together. However, I think the analogy works well with communication. After all, this is the part of the research process where we really have to put ourselves out there, we have to receive feedback, debate our results, and defend our conclusions, often in open forums. These are all elements at the forefront of writing group dynamics.

Read more about the highs and lows of our ClimateSnack project in our paper in the recent HESS/NHESS special issue on Effective Science Communication and Education in Hydrology and Natural Hazards.

By Mathew Stiller-Reeve, co-founder of ClimateSnack and researcher at Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, Bergen, Norway

Reference

Stiller-Reeve, M. A., Heuzé, C., Ball, W. T., White, R. H., Messori, G., van der Wiel, K., Medhaug, I., Eckes, A. H., O’Callaghan, A., Newland, M. J., Williams, S. R., Kasoar, M., Wittmeier, H. E., and Kumer, V.: Improving together: better science writing through peer learning, Hydrol. Earth Syst. Sci., 20, 2965-2973, doi:10.5194/hess-20-2965-2016, 2016.