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

November 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 stories

Earth’s red and rocky neighbor has been grabbing a significant amount of attention from the geoscience media this month. We’ll give you the rundown on the latest news of Mars.

The NASA-led InSight lander, short for Interior Exploration using Seismic Investigations, Geodesy and Heat Transport, touched down on the Red Planet’s surface last week, causing the space agency’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) control room to erupt in applause, fist pumps, and cool victory handshakes.

The lander, equipped with a heat probe, a radio science instrument and a seismometer, will monitors the planet’s deep interior. Currently, no other planet besides our own has been analysed in this way.

While scientists know quite a bit about the atmosphere and soil level of Mars, their understanding of the planet’s innerworkings, figuratively and literally, only scratches the surface. “We don’t know very much about what goes on a mile below the surface, much less 2,000 miles below the surface down to the center,” explains Bruce Banerdt, a scientist at JPL, to the Atlantic.

By probing into Mars’ depths, researchers hope the mission gives insight into the evolution of our solar system’s rocky planets in their early stages and helps explain why Earth and Mars formed such different environments, despite originating from the same cloud of dust.

“Our measurements will help us turn back the clock and understand what produced a verdant Earth but a desolate Mars,” Banerdt said recently in a press release.

The InSight lander launched from Earth in May this year, making its way to Mars over the course of seven months. Once reaching the planet’s upper atmosphere, the spacecraft decelerated from about 5,500 to 2.4 metres per second, in just about six minutes. To safely slow down its descent, the lander had to use a heatshield, a parachute and retro rockets.

“Although we’ve done it before, landing on Mars is hard, and this mission is no different,” said Rob Manning, chief engineer at JPL, during a livestream. “It takes thousands of steps to go from the top of the atmosphere to the surface, and each one of them has to work perfectly to be a successful mission.”

This artist’s concept depicts NASA’s InSight lander after it has deployed its instruments on the Martian surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The InSight lander is currently situated on Elysium Planitia, a plane near the planet’s equator also known by the mission team as the “biggest parking lot on Mars.” Since landing, the robot has taken its first photos, opened its solar panels, and taken preliminary data. It will spend the next few weeks prepping and unpacking the instruments onboard.

The devices will be used to carry out three experiments. The seismometers will listen for ‘marsquakes,’ which can offer clues into the location and composition of Mars’ rocky layers. The thermal probe will reveal how much heat flows out of the planet’s interior and hopefully show how alike (or unalike) Mars is to Earth. And finally, radio transmissions will demonstrate how the planet wobbles on its axis.

In other news, NASA has also chosen a landing site for the next Mars rover, which is expected to launch in 2020. The space agency has announced that the rover will explore and take rock samples from Jezero crater, one of the three locations shortlisted by scientists. The crater is 45 kilometres wide and at one point had been filled with water to a depth of 250 metres. The sediment and carbonate rocks left behind could offers clues on whether Mars had sustained life.

What you might have missed

By analysing radar scans and sediment samples, a team of scientists have discovered a massive crater, hidden underneath more than 900 metres of ice in northwest Greenland. After surveying the site, scientists say it’s likely that a meteorite created the sometime between 3 million and 12,000 years ago.

The depression under Hiawatha Glacier is 31 kilometres wide, big enough to hold the city of Paris. At this size, the crater is one of the top 25 largest craters on Earth; it’s also the first to be found under ice. An impact of this size significant mark on the Earth’s environment. “Such an impact would have been felt hundreds of miles away, would have warmed up that area of Greenland and may have rained rocky debris down on North America and Europe,” said Jason Daley from Smithsonian Magazine.

Links we liked

The EGU Story

This month, we have announced changes to the EGU General Assembly 2019 schedule, which aim to give more time for all presentation types. Check our news announcement for more information. In other news, we have opened applications to the EGU General Assembly 2019 mentoring programme, and are advertising a job opportunity for geoscientists with science communication experience to work at the meeting.

Also this month, we opened the call for applications for EGU Public Engagement Grants, and have announced the creation of the EGU Working Group on Diversity and Equality. Finally, we’ve published a press release on a new study that looked into whether data on seabird behavior could be used to track the ocean’s currents.

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.

GeoPolicy: Assessing environmental and social impact – applying policy in big industry

GeoPolicy: Assessing environmental and social impact – applying policy in big industry

Former EGU Science Communications Fellow Edvard Glücksman is our second guest blogger for the newly established EGUPolicy column. Edvard is a Senior Environmental & Social Specialist at the UK-based consultancy Wardell Armstrong and an External Stakeholder Affiliate at the University of Exeter. He describes his work along the research-policy-industry interface.

The collapse of a wastewater dam at an iron ore mine last November left 19 dead and triggered an environmental crisis in Brazil’s River Doce basin. The mine is a joint venture between Vale SA and Australian-owned BHP Billiton, and the operators are now expected to pay the Brazilian government around USD $7 billion in compensation for environmental and community damages.

Such large-scale industrial accidents devastate entire communities and inflict long-term reputational damage to local and international companies working in the area. In my role at Wardell Armstrong, an independent UK-based consultancy, I work to align project design and operational layout to national policy frameworks and international standards of best practice, such as the World Bank’s IFC Sustainability Framework.

Improving the deal for local communities

Independent Environmental and Social Impact Assessment (ESIA) studies are a fundamental requirement for operators to secure funding from increasingly careful lenders, who are reluctant to invest in projects that threaten to damage their reputation. By identifying, mitigating, and managing negative impacts of industrial projects, I work to reduce a project’s risk to the environment and nearby communities.

Conventional environmental impact assessments focus on a range of variables, such as water use and quality, noise and vibration, air quality, soils, or greenhouse gas emissions. Increasingly, these are complemented by cultural, economic, and demographic variables, as well as ecosystem services, which frame natural ecosystems according to their economic contribution to society. Public participation, known as stakeholder engagement, is a key element of the ESIA process.

Under the broader umbrella of the rapidly emerging notion of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), I also liaise with project operators to maximise the short- and long-term positive contribution of industry to local communities. As a result of decades of expensive reputational damage, the mining industry has been particularly proactive in implementing CSR schemes, convening the biggest players under the auspices of the International Council on Mining & Metals (ICMM).

CSR is the idea that companies should positively contribute to society, above and beyond legal and profit-making commitments. Although hardly a new or radical concept, the notion that industry should be socially responsible is brought to the fore by heightened scrutiny of industrial accidents. Negative publicity, amplified by social and conventional media, sways public opinion and investor confidence, translating into financial risk. As CSR progressively enters national and international policy agendas, including across the EU, an increasingly diverse range of companies and industries adopt its tenets as a core part of their business model.

Tools for the next generation

I ended up in this job after several years of juggling primary research and science policy work. My doctoral thesis was in biology but, having studied sociology in an undergraduate degree, I always enjoyed working at the interface of science and society. During my doctoral years, I also took regular breaks from the lab, including on Secondment to the UK Parliamentary Office of Science & Technology (POST).

In my experience, most of today’s science jobs require interdisciplinary thought and keen communication skills. As a consultant, I apply natural and social science concepts across the private sector, bridging the gap between researchers, the policy arena, and profit-driven industrial stakeholders. Having previously worked in science communication roles, including at the EGU, I have a keen appreciation for the role of accessibility within the policymaking arena. In industry, where non-specialists frequently juggle with confusing scientific concepts, compounded by cultural discrepancies and linguistic barriers, the role of communication skills are thus just as vital as technical ability.

When working within and around policy issues, some of the biggest impacts can be achieved by raising awareness to the next generation of policymakers. To that end, I also lecture undergraduates at the University of Exeter about broader sustainability issues, industry-community relations, and the impact assessment process. Some of my students are mining engineers and, although the environmental and social dimensions of industrial projects are increasingly in the limelight, conventional engineering modules rarely highlight the importance of these ‘softer’ dimensions of their trade. As policy requirements become more stringent and the investment community becomes increasingly risk-averse, university courses will steadily shift to reflect the changing landscape.

Edvard Glücksman, Senior Environmental & Social Specialist at Wardell Armstrong

Edvard Glücksman at the Wardell Armstrong's Turo office, built on the site of the Wheal Jane mine in Cornwall, UK

Edvard Glücksman at the Wardell Armstrong’s Truro office, built on the site of the Wheal Jane mine in Cornwall, UK

 

Imaggeo on Mondays: Entering a frozen world

Dmitry Vlasov, a PhD Student and junior scientist from Lomonosov Moscow State University, brings us this week’s Imaggeo on Mondays. He shares his experience of taking part in a student scientific society expedition to Lake Baikal.

This picture shows icy shores of Lake Baikal – a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the world’s largest natural freshwater reservoir (containing about one fifth of Earth’s unfrozen surface freshwater). It is also the deepest lake on our planet (1,642 m).

The icy shores of Lake Baikal. (Credit: Dmitry Vlasov, via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The icy shores of Lake Baikal. (Credit: Dmitry Vlasov, via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The aim of the expedition was to do an eco-geochemical assessment of the environment in and around Ulan-Ude (the capital of Republic of Buryatia). Snow samples were collected all around the city to determine their chemical composition and the concentrations of different chemical elements present in the snowpack. We also studied the isotopic composition of snow to help find the sites where air masses form.

Weather-wise, we were lucky – according to locals this winter was a warm and snowy one. The temperature was (only!) -25 to -33 degrees Celsius. Times were tough when strong, cold and piercing winds froze our hands and faces.

To find out the impact of transport and industry on the snow’s chemical composition within the city, we took background snow samples at different distances and in and around it. One such area was set to the northeast of the city, close to the Turka and Goryachinsk settlements across the notch from Ulan-Ude. This photo was taken in that exact spot. It took about 2.5 hours to make the 170 km journey from Ulan-Ude by car, but we didn’t regret it. The scenery was amazing! The cover of ice over the lake sparkled bright blue, despite being exceptionally transparent. Because of the water’s choppy nature, ice on the Lake Baikal often cracks and billows to form a chain of miniature ice mountains, alternated with relatively smooth ice plains. I’d never seen anything like this before.

All the participants were very excited about expedition – it showed the students different sides of scientific life: work in rather hard weather conditions, analytical lab studies, route planning and of course the breathtaking beauty and outstanding power of nature.

By Dmitry Vlasov, PhD Student and junior scientist, Lomonosov Moscow State University

Acknowledgement:

The expedition was carried out with the financial support of the Russian Geographical Society and the Russian Foundation for Basic Research (project № 13-05-41191 and project RGS “Complex Expedition Selenga-Baikal”).

Imaggeo is the EGU’s open access geosciences image repository. Photos uploaded to Imaggeo can be used by scientists, the press and the public provided the original author is credited. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. You can submit your photos here.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Pitter-patter of little paws in Patomsky crater

This week’s Imaggeo on Mondays is brought to you by Dmitry Demezhko, who describes how Patomsky crater may have formed and why it keeps scientists puzzling…

Patomsky crater, also known as Patomskiy crater or the Patom cone, sits in the Irkutsk Region of Eastern Siberia. The site is a curious cone with a crater at the top and a small mound in the center. The cone totals some 39 metres in height and stretches more than 100 metres in diameter (at the base of the cone).

Patomsky crater – view from a helicopter. (Credit: Dmitry Semenov)

Patomsky crater – view from a helicopter. (Credit: Dmitry Semenov)

The crater was discovered in 1949 by Russian geologist Vadim Kolpakov and for a long time it was considered to be an impact structure with a meteoric origin. Later, Viktor Antipin suggested it could be a nascent volcano. But neither meteoritic nor volcanic matter was found there. The crater consists of proterozoic limestone and sandstone debris and, to date, there is no consensus among scientists regarding the crater’s origin.

View from the crater. (Credit: Dmitry Demezhko, distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

View from the crater. (Credit: Dmitry Demezhko, distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

During a short expedition in August 2010 we conducted a gravimetric survey at the crater and surrounding area, aiming to evaluate its internal structure. The gravity field shows that surface negative anomalies, where the gravity is unusually low, have deep “roots” and a joint source at depth. But the crater’s gravity field differs greatly from the fields of other well-known impact structures, suggesting that it may not have formed during a meteoric impact.

Downward continuation of the Patomsky crater (left) and Popigay impact structure gravity fields (right). (Credit: Demezhko et al., 2011)

Downward continuation of the Patomsky crater (left) and Popigay impact structure gravity fields (right), (click for larger). (Credit: Demezhko et al., 2011)

We suggest this structure formed in two stages. During the first stage tectonic processes similar to mud volcanism created a porous vertical channel. In the second stage, cryogenic processes would have played an important role in breaking apart the rocks to form the cone and crater.

There is a lot of mysticism and superstition surrounding Patomsky. Local residents call the crater “a fabulous Eagle’s Nest” and say that both people and animals bypass it. We didn’t sense anything mystical while working in the crater though – and this cute little animal lives quite comfortably there.

Downward continuation of the Patomsky crater (left) and Popigay impact structure gravity fields (right). (Credit: Demezhko et al., 2011)

“Inside Patomsky crater: a chipmunk” by Dmitry Demezhko. This image is distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu.

By Dmitry Demezhko, Institute of Geophysics UB RAS, Yekaterinburg

References:

Alekseyev, V. R.  Cryovolcanism and the mystery of the Patom Cone, Geodynamics and Tectonophysics, 3, 289-307, 2012 (in Russian)

Demezhko D.Y., Ugryumov I.A., Bychkov S.G.: Gravimetric studies of Patom Crater. In: Patom Crater. Research in the 21st Century. Publishing House of the Irkutsk State University, Irkutsk, p. 42–50, 2011 (in Russian)

If you are pre-registered for the 2014 General Assembly (Vienna, 27 April – 2 May), you can take part in our annual photo competition! Up until 1 March, every participant pre-registered for the General Assembly can submit up three original photos and one moving image on any broad theme related to the Earth, planetary, and space sciences in competition for free registration to next year’s General Assembly!  These can include fantastic field photos, a stunning shot of your favourite thin section, what you’ve captured out on holiday or under the electron microscope – if it’s geoscientific, it fits the bill. Find out more about how to take part at http://imaggeo.egu.eu/photo-contest/information/.