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

July 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 story

The world soaks up the sun

This summer our planet experienced the hottest June in recorded history, with the average global temperature reaching 16.4 °C, and July is on track to becoming the hottest month ever measured on Earth. And if you either live in or have been visiting Europe over the last few weeks, it sure feels like record-breaking heat.

In both June and July, several regions in Europe reached all-time temperature highs as warm air from northern Africa made its way through the continent. A rapid analysis done by researchers affiliated with the World Weather Attribution Network shows that human-caused climate change made the June heatwave at least five times more likely to happen. Furthermore, the scientists say in their report that “every heat wave occurring in Europe today is made more likely and more intense by human-induced climate change.”

Heatwaves this intense can put human health at risk and even be deadly in severe cases. A death toll reported that extreme heat Europe in the summer of 2003 led to more than 70,000 deaths throughout the continent.

The heatwave is now advancing towards Greenland, scientists report, and increased heat in the Arctic will likely lead to “another major peak in melt area,” said Twila Moon, a research scientist with the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC) in Colorado, US, to Live Science.

Simultaneous to the heatwave, a new study has reported that Earth’s current global warming is the only worldwide climate event to have happened in the last 2,000 years. While there have been notable climate events within the last few centuries, such as dramatic temperature changes from volcanic eruptions, the impact of these events were more regional rather than universal. In contrast, the study finds that modern climate change has affected 98 percent of the world.  “Absolutely nothing resembling modern-day global warming has happened on Earth for at least the past 2,000 years,” said the Atlantic.

50 years since one small step

20 July 2019 also marked the 50th anniversary of the first human steps on the Moon. In 1969, NASA astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the Moon’s surface as part of the Apollo 11 Mission, revolutionising our understanding of our closest cosmic neighbor. For the 21 hours and 36 minutes on the lunar landscape, Armstrong and Aldrin reported field observations, installed instruments for multiple experiments, and gathered more than 20 kilograms of rock and dust samples.

Since then, scientists have made several discoveries from the data collected during the Apollo 11 Mission. For example, the rocks brought back from the Moon were determined to be about 4.5 billion years old, not much older than the Earth. Geoscientists also found that rocks from the Moon were very similar chemically to those on Earth, suggesting that the two bodies could have evolved in tandem from a large impact event, a leading theory also known as the giant-impact hypothesis.

Lunar Module pilot Buzz Aldrin photographed during the Apollo 11 extravehicular activity on the moon. Aldrin had just deployed the Early Apollo Scientific Experiments Package. In the foreground is the Passive Seismic Experiment Package; beyond it is the Laser Ranging Retro-Reflector (LR-3). Credit: NASA

While operational, the lunar seismometers installed by Armstrong and Aldrin detected ‘moonquakes’ and revealed that the Moon has a relatively small solid core and a thicker crust compared to the Earths’ interior.

Armstrong and Aldrin also set up a Laser Ranging Retroreflector to precisely measure how close the Moon is to the Earth. The retroreflector is still operational to this day, and the data obtained from the experiment shows that the Moon is almost literally inching away from the Earth at 3.8 centimetres (1.5 inches) each year on average.

These examples are just some of the discoveries made following this mission, and scientists are still studying the samples and data obtained 50 years ago to learn more about the Moon, the Earth and the solar system.

“One of the biggest misconceptions is that the Apollo samples aren’t being studied anymore, and that the Apollo samples only tell us about the moon,” says Ryan Zeigler, Apollo sample curator at the Johnson Space Center, in Science News.

What you might have missed

A new study published in July reported that tidewater glaciers, ones that flow from land to sea, could be melting much faster than previously thought. By analysing detailed measurements collected through radar, sonar and time-lapse photography, a team of researchers found that one Alaskan tidewater glacier is releasing a surprising meltwater from below the surface of the ocean.

“The melt rates that we measured were about 10 to 100 times larger than what theory predicted,” says lead study author David A. Sutherland, an oceanographer at the University of Oregon, in Scientific American.

The new findings could help scientists better understand how glaciers respond to global warming and how such glacial melt contributes to sea level rise and impacts local ecosystems.

Researchers studying LeConte Glacier in Alaska have found that its melt rate was 10 to 100 times larger than expected. Credit: US Forest Service, Carey Case

Other noteworthy stories

The EGU story

In July we are advertised another vacancy at the EGU Executive Office in Munich, Germany: EGU Communications Officer. The successful candidate will manage the EGU blogs and social media channels and be the office contact point for early career scientists.

Additionally, we are providing an EGU member with the opportunity to visit Brussels and work alongside a Member of the European Parliament (MEP) for a day. The pairing scheme will enable the selected EGU member to experience the daily work of an MEP, learn more about the role of science in policymaking, and potentially provide expertise on a science-policy issue. Interested EGU members should apply by 6 September.

Also in July, we have opened the call for candidates for EGU Union President, General Secretary and Division Presidents: if you’d like to nominate yourself or propose a candidate, you can do so by 15 September.

Finally, if you’d like to apply for financial support from the EGU to organise a meeting, make sure to submit an application by 15 August. This is also the deadline to submit proposals for Union Symposia and Great Debates at the EGU General Assembly 2020. The deadline for scientific sessions and short courses is 5 September.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sand and snow on the Tibetan Plateau

Imaggeo on Mondays: Sand and snow on the Tibetan Plateau

Roughly 50 million years ago, the Eurasian and Indian continental plates began to crash into each other, dramatically changing the landscape of modern-day Asia. The force of the collision caused the Earth to scrunch together at the zone of impact, subsequently forming the Himalayan mountain range. However, to the north of the crash, a stretch of the Earth uplifted without bunching up or wrinkling; instead the clash formed an elevated flat surface five times as large as France, now known as the Tibetan Plateau.

The Tibetan Plateau is often called the ‘Roof of the World,’ as the region’s average elevation exceeds 4,500 metres and is home to the Earth’s highest peaks, including Mount Everest and K2. The plateau is also a crossroad for many different kinds of ecosystems and geologic features, including deep canyons, winding rivers, massive glaciers, boundless grasslands and alpine deserts.

This week’s featured image, taken by Monica Cardarilli, a risk and safety engineer at the Sapienza University of Rome in Italy, gives a snapshot into the plateau’s dynamic and diverse environment, where snow, water, soil and organic matter all make their mark on the landscape. “In this picture natural elements are expressed by the colors, like a painting where the whole exceeds the single parts in a mix of perceptions,” says Cardarilli.

The landscape of the plateau and the surrounding mountainous regions is also as fragile as it is diverse, and many scientists fear that climate change and other human activities are rapidly altering this corner of the Earth. For example, research suggests that the Tibetan Plateau is experiencing higher rates of warming compared to the global average, which has already caused concerning levels of glacier melt, flooding, desertification and grassland degradation in the area.

A recent report suggests that, due to climate change, at least one third of the glaciers situated within the plateau and the surrounding Hindu Kush-Himalaya (HKH) region will be lost from ice melt by the end of the century. This level of melting would have major consequences for the surrounding population, as more than 1.5 billion people rely on freshwater that stems from the region and many local communities would be threatened by severe flooding and lake bursts.

The report, undertaken by more than 200 researchers, warns that climate action is necessary to prevent even further melting in this region and avoid worse disasters.

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/.

April GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from the 2019 General Assembly

April GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from the 2019 General Assembly

The EGU General Assembly 2019 took place in Vienna last month, drawing more than 16,000 participants from 113 countries. This month’s GeoRoundUp will focus on some of the unique and interesting stories that came out of research presented at the Assembly!

Major Stories

Glacial disappearing act in the European Alps

New research from a team of scientists estimated the future of all glaciers within the European Alps, and the results aren’t that hopeful. After running new simulations and analysing observational data, the researchers predict that, if we limit global warming below 2°C above pre-industrial levels, by 2100 glacier volume in the Alps would be roughly two-thirds less than levels seen today.

Furthermore, according to the new research, if we fail to put global warming in check, more than 90 percent of Europe’s glacier volume in the Alps will disappear by the end of the century. “In this pessimistic case, the Alps will be mostly ice free by 2100, with only isolated ice patches remaining at high elevation, representing 5 percent or less of the present-day ice volume,” says Matthias Huss, a researcher at ETH Zurich and co-author of the study.

Evolution of total glacier volume in the European Alps between 2003 and 2100. Credit: Zekollari et al., 2019, The Cryosphere.

The data also suggests that from now until 2050, about 50 percent of the present glacier volume will melt, regardless of how much greenhouse gas emissions we produce in the coming years. This is because glaciers are slow to respond to changes in climate conditions, and still reflect colder climates from the past. In addition to presenting their research at the EGU General Assembly, the team also published the results in The Cryosphere.

The search for the oldest ice announces their drill site

Ice-core extraction near Concordia station (Credit: Thibaut Vergoz, French Polar Institute, CNRS)

After three years of careful consideration, a collection of European ice and climate researchers have pinpointed the spot where they would most likely uncover the oldest ice core possible, one that dates back to 1.5 million years from today.

The consortium of researchers, also known as the Beyond-EPICA project, hopes to pull out a sample of ice containing a seamless record of Earth’s climate history. Such ice samples contain trapped air bubbles, some sealed off thousands to millions of years ago, thus providing undisturbed snapshots into Earth’s ancient atmospheres. Using this climate data, researchers can make predictions on how Earth’s will warm in the future.

At the General Assembly, the scientists formally announced that the drilling operation will be conducted 40 kilometres southwest from the Dome Concordia Station, which is run jointly by France and Italy. The team plans to collect a three km-long ice core from the site, nicknamed ‘Little Dome C,’ over the course of five years, then will spend at least an additional year examining the ice.

Map of Antarctica showing the areas surveyed by BE-OI and the selected drill site (Credit: British Antarctic Survey (BAS))

 

What you might have missed

Predicting the largest quakes on Earth

Scientists have long discussed how intense quakes can be on Earth, with some studies suggesting that Earth’s tectonic features cannot generate earthquakes larger than magnitude 10. However, new research conducted by Álvaro González Center from Mathematical Research in Barcelona, Spain estimates that subduction zones, regions where one tectonic plate is pushed under another, subsequently sinking into the mantle, have the potential to release 10.4 magnitude earthquakes. González’ analysis suggests that such events happen on average every 2,000 years.

“Such events would produce especially large tsunamis and long lasting shaking which would effect distant locations,” Gonzalez said to the Agence France-Presse.

His findings also propose that large asteroid impacts, such as the dinosaur-killing Chicxulub event 66 million years ago, may trigger even larger magnitude shaking. According to data analysis, shaking events reaching magnitude 10.5 or more likely happen on average once every 10 million years.

Where deadly heat will hit the hardest

Heatwaves and heat-related hazards are expected to be more prevalent and more severe as the Earth warms, and a team of researchers looked into which regions of the world will be the most vulnerable.

The scientists specifically analysed human exposure to ‘deadly heat,’ where temperatures as so high that humans aren’t able to cool down anymore. By examining data projections for future population growth and annual days of deadly heat, the researchers assessed which areas will be hit the hardest. They found that, if global warming isn’t limited to 2°C above pre-industrial levels, there will be a few ‘hots spots,’ where large populations are predicted to experience frequent days of deadly heat annually.

Dhaka, Bangladesh, is expected to experience significant exposure to deadly heat in the future, according to research presented at the EGU 2019 meeting. Credit: mariusz kluzniak via Flickr

The research results suggest that future deadly heat will most significantly impact the entire South Asia and South-East Asia region, Western Africa and the Caribbean. Sub-Saharan Africa in particular will experience big increases in deadly heat exposure, due to climate change and population growth.

The researchers also found that a minority of large cities in very poor countries will be the most affected by future heat conditions. “There is a big inequality of who takes the toll of deadly heat,” said Steffen Lohrey, a PhD student at the Technical University Berlin who presented the findings at the EGU meeting.

Europe and the Mediterranean at risk of malaria due to climate change

While malaria was eradicated in Europe and the Mediterranean in the 20th century, there have been an increasing number of new cases in this region of the world, primarily due to international travel and immigration. New research presented at the General Assembly by Elke Hertig, a professor at the University of Augsburg, Germany, suggests that Europe’s future climate may further increase the risk of local malaria recurrence and expansion.

Malaria is transmitted to humans by Anopheles mosquitos and these disease-carrying insects are very sensitive to temperature and precipitation conditions. In particular, these mosquitos thrive in areas with warm spring temperatures and high precipitation in the summer and autumn.

Using climate models, Hertig found that the malaria-carrying mosquito population will likely spread northward as Europe’s climate changes, reaching much of northern Europe by the end of the century. Alternatively, her models suggest that mosquito populations will decline in the Mediterranean regions, mainly due to decreases in summer and autumn rainfall.

A statistical analysis also revealed that, by the end of the century, disease transmission from mosquitoes will be the most effective in southern and south-eastern European regions, including parts of Spain, southern France, Italy, Greece, and the Balkan countries.

Other noteworthy stories

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Imaggeo on Mondays: Up close and personal with Svalbard glaciers

Imaggeo on Mondays: Up close and personal with Svalbard glaciers

A University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS) Glaciology student examines the calving front of the Paulabreen glacier [in Spitsbergen, Svalbard], taking advantage of sea ice in the Rindersbukta fjord to safely approach the front. Paulabreen is a surge-type glacier, which means that it periodically switches between long periods of slow, stable flow to short-lived periods of very fast flow during which it advances.

Paulabreen last surged between 2003 and 2006, advancing 1.5km in that period. This rapid advance turned the calving front into a crevassed and jumbled mess. In this photo we see a mix of glacier ice, refrozen water ice and crevasses infilled with basal sediments, resulting in a beautiful and chaotic pattern of contrasting textures, twisted into place by the grinding force of the surge.

Description by Matt Trevers, as it first appeared on imaggeo.egu.eu.

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/.