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Geoscience hot topics – Part II: the Earth as it is now and what its future looks like

Geoscience hot topics – Part II: the Earth as it is now and what its future looks like

What are the most interesting, cutting-edge and compelling research topics within the scientific areas represented in the EGU divisions? Ground-breaking and innovative research features yearly at our annual General Assembly, but what are the overarching ideas and big research questions that still remain unanswered? We spoke to some of our division presidents and canvased their thoughts on what the current Earth, ocean and planetary hot topics will be.

Because there are too many to fit in a single post we’ve brought some of them together in a series of posts which will tackle three main areas. The first post focused on the Earth’s past and its origin, while today’s post will focus on the present Earth and its future. The final post of the series will explore where our understanding of the Earth and its structure is still lacking. We’d love to know what the opinions of the readers of GeoLog are on this topic too, so we welcome and encourage lively discussion in the comments!

Sustainable development

As populations across the globe continue to grow, geoscientists have a key role to play in sustainable development. The demands placed on planet Earth to supply our societies with anything from drinking water to food and energy are ever rising. Managing these resources in a way that ensures we can meet the needs of current and future generations is one of the biggest challenges faced by scientists and policy makers worldwide.

Humanity’s pursuit of a sustainable future, where our activities do not contribute to increased greenhouse gas emissions to the atmosphere (something which has be high on policymakers agenda’s recently) will open new, important, avenues of research. Goals need to be achieved so that food, energy and water resources are available for future generations and methods must be found to exploit resources in a way that minimises the impact on the environment.

Producing fuel for a growing population
The boundaries of technology and our knowledge of where and how resources can be exploited will be pushed as the demands for energy increase. Traditional oil and gas resources will continue to be exploited, but new emerging technologies and fuel sources will mean a shift to lesser known research areas.

Angelo De Santis, President of the Earth Magnetism and Rock Physics (EMRP) Division adds that: “Such fields as rock physics, geomagnetism and rock magnetism will have a role to play in future resource exploration.”

Perusing the programme of the 2016 General Assembly gives a flavour of some of the emerging avenues of research in this field. Take for instance deep geothermal reservoirs: this little know source of renewable energy provides an alternative to conventional fuel sources, with the potential to reduce fossil-fuel consumption as well as curbing greenhouse-gas emissions. Yet, the understanding of how to engineer the reservoirs so that they remain productive and safe over long time-scales is still being developed, and having better handle on the rock physics and mechanics of the reservoirs would help in this regard.

"Geothermal energy methods". Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Geothermal energy methods“. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Ensuring the integrity of any reservoir be it conventional or unconventional, requires collaboration. Seismology has a large part to play here too. Away from the well-known and exciting work being carried out on understanding earthquakes, the field of ‘ambient noise’ seismic data has the potential to revolutionise our understanding of Earth dynamics and can be applied to monitoring changes in zones of natural and induced (minor tremors caused by human activity) seismicity in oil & gas reservoirs and also geothermal fields, highlights P. Martin Mai, President of the Seismology (SM) Division.

In seismology, ambient noise, or “background noise” recorded on seismic instruments refers to the seismic energy that is continuously generated by various natural (e.g. ocean waves, wind, etc) and man-made (traffic, industrial activities) processes. Classically, seismology wants to avoid any noise contamination of seismic recordings, as the noise masks or even destroys the desired “deterministic” signals from earthquakes or exploration-driven seismic excitations. However, experimental and theoretical work over the last ~10 yrs has shown that the mathematically predicted relation between “noise” and the Earth elastic properties can be applied to use “noise” for making inference about Earth structure. “Ambient noise” studies in seismology have been used, for instance, to infer properties of the Earth crust and how it may change on small scales (like in earthquake fault zones) over time, but ‘ambient noise tomography’ also helps to unravel Earth properties in the upper mantle (down to ~150 km depth). Research in ambient-noise seismology requires dense seismic recording networks that continuously record the subtle movements of the ground. Advanced processing and interpretation techniques then allow to also, for instance, monitor the processes within, and thus the state, or geothermal or oil & gas reservoirs.

Raw materials

 A new rural landscape in Irpinia. Credit: Sabina Porfido (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

A new rural landscape in Irpinia. Credit: Sabina Porfido (distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

According to Chris Juhlin, President of Energy, Resources and Environment (ERE) Division, it will be crucial for scientists in this field not only to focus on establishing how energy can be produced in a way that will continue to allow societies to live comfortably, but also establish where the resources to produce and supply energy will come from.

The advantages of exploiting resources, such as solar, wind, geothermal energy and nuclear energy over fossil fuels are clear: their emissions of greenhouse gases to the atmosphere are limited. That being said, an often overlooked fact is that they still require natural resources in order to operate.

Juhlin uses wind turbines as an example to illustrate the point: “Wind turbines require significant amounts of rare earth metals, as well as steel, to be built. These metals need to be mined and the mining operation produces CO2.”

Both mining of metals and storage of nuclear waste require that sophisticated geological, geochemical and geophysical surveying methods are available. Not only that, when finding and choosing new locations to mine for resources and store waste, looking at the bigger picture is also important. How these human activities will affect the ecosystems in which they take place will take on greater significance as the loss of habitats and biomes increases.

Juhlin emphasises that: “It is important to understand how a decision at local level may affect the energy balance on a global level.”

Defining a new geological epoch – The Anthropocene

That humans will leave their mark on Earth is undeniable. Human kind has already caused extinctions, polluted oceans and the atmosphere, as well as influenced land use and biodiversity. But pin-pointing the exact time at which our actions became a major geological agent is a source of heated debate.

Traditionally, new epochs are defined by an abrupt change in the chemistry of rock strata which signifies the occurrence of a major geological or palaeontological event. However, in the case of defining the age of humans, the Anthropocene, the lack of a rock record makes applying this traditional approach difficult.

Nevertheless, since it was introduced in 1980s and popularised in the past decade or so, the notion of the Anthropocene epoch has been gaining momentum and opened up further research questions.

Helmut Weissert, President of the Stratigraphy, Sedimentology, and Palaeontology (SSP) Division, says that comparing the role humans have played versus past natural variations is becoming increasingly important. Take an example: what role have humans played in accelerated soil erosion vs. natural variations? Equally, what role has humankind played in affecting the global biogeochemical cycles? By comparing current changes with natural changes recorded in marine and lake sediments we may better understand the role humans have played in shaping the modern Earth.

An exotic solution?

The scientific consensus is that in order to minimise our impact on the planet, while at the same time moving towards zero net emissions of greenhouse gases by the second half of this century, a combination of approaches are needed. While renewable resources and nuclear energy will provide energy which has minor contributions to greenhouse-gas emissions, it is just as important to reduce and find ways to deal with emissions from burning fossil fuels (think carbon capture and storage).

Hot_Topics2_cloudseeding.png

Sketch illustrating the process of cloud seeding. Cloud seeding by DooFi. Distributed via Wikimedia

Geoengineering might provide a more exotic solution to the problem. The premise behind it is to use technology to counter the effects of a warming climate. Proposed solutions include reflecting sunlight into space to cool the planet, cloud seeding, scrubbing CO2 out of the atmosphere, … But at this stage, the majority are deemed unrealistic; not to mention that there is an ongoing ethical debate as to whether they should be used at all and that the consequences of their implementation are also largely unclear

So it seems, the presence of human kind on Earth has paved the way for an astonishing period of research, not only in the geosciences but also in other fields, fuelling an exciting opportunity for cross-disciplinary investigation. And the time is most certainly now, if we are to minimise the mark we leave on the planet while at the same time ensuring a sustainable future for generations to come.

By Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer in collaboration with EGU Division Presidents

Next time, in the Geosciences hot topics short series, we’ll be looking at our understanding of the Earth as we know it now and how we might be able to adapt to the future.

Geosciences Column: Shifting the O in H2O

Wherever you are in the world’s oceans, you can identify particular bodies of water (provided you have the right equipment) by how salty they are. You can get a feel for how productive that part of the ocean is by measuring a few chemical components in the water column. And, year on year, you will see a recurring pattern in how things like temperature, salinity and oxygen content vary with depth. This last property – the oxygen content – is vital for life in the oceans, but recent decades have seen shifts in the amount available.

There is always more oxygen at the surface than there is at depth. When waves break they mix an abundance of tiny air bubbles into the water, providing oceans with their oxygen supply, which is mixed into the deep through large-scale ocean circulation and storms over winter. At the surface, algae make the most of the abundant light to photosynthesise, beginning the base of the marine food web and adding a little more oxygen to the water in the process. These microscopic plants are eaten by animal plankton (zooplankton), which are, in turn, eaten by other plankton, crustaceans, fish, and a plethora of other predators – none of which contribute to the ocean’s oxygen. Instead, they, and a multitude of microbes, slowly use up more and more of the supply as they respire and there comes a point in the water column where there is no longer enough oxygen for these aerobic animals to survive – the oxygen minimum zone (OMZ).

The surface ocean, where oxygen begins its journey to the deep. (Credit: Anna Lourantou, distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The surface ocean, where oxygen begins its journey to the deep. (Credit: Anna Lourantou, distributed via imaggeo.egu.eu)

What marks the boundary of this zone is dependant not on the properties of the water, but the life that lives there – it is the point when marine organisms experience hypoxic stress, usually an oxygen concentration in the range of 60–120 μmol kg−1. Below this, life in the marine environment is very different indeed. Anaerobic microbes thrive below the OMZ, making the most of life in an environment where there is very little oxygen in each litre of seawater.

The boundary between oxygen-rich water and the OMZ is known as the oxygen limiting zone (OLZ), and during the day many small swimming species take refuge here to avoid their predators. In the Eastern Pacific, you reach the OLZ when there’s 60 μmol kg−1 oxygen in the water, and the OMZ when there’s a mere 20 μmol kg−1.

Waves are key to mixing oxygen into the ocean. When they break at the surface they mix air bubbles into the water, taking oxygen from the atmosphere into the sea. (Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program)

Waves are key to mixing oxygen into the ocean. When they break at the surface they mix air bubbles into the water, taking oxygen from the atmosphere into the sea. (Credit: NOAA Okeanos Explorer Program)

The depth of the OMZ depends on temperature. Because warmer water is capable of containing less dissolved gas than cold, the OMZ is found at shallower depths in the tropics, and occurs at shallower depths in the summer than it does over winter. Winter weather allows more oxygen to be mixed into the deep ocean as storms break down the sea’s stratification, bringing nutrients to the surface and replenishing supplies closer to the sea floor. However, when there’s a lot of production at the surface (which draws down the oxygen) and the replenishment at depth is slow, large oxygen minimum zones persist from year to year.

Recently though, the upper boundaries of these zones have been shifting to shallower depths, resulting larger hypoxic regions in the ocean. Since the 1960s, the OLZ in the Gulf of Alaska, for example, has shifted some 100 metres shallower. Why?

The oceans are absorbing more heat in response to climate change. Because high temperatures reduce oxygen solubility, they reduce the amount of dissolved oxygen at the surface. The increase in surface heat also creates stronger stratification in the ocean, making it harder for oxygen to be mixed deep into the water column, and reducing dissolved oxygen at depth. Ocean circulation systems are also in a state of change, with systems like the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation in decline. Such changes in ocean circulation will also affect the amount of oxygen that’s mixed into the deep sea.

Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, better known as AMOC. Red arrows show warm water circulation in the upper 1100 m and blue arrows show the southward flow of cold, deep water. (Credit: Smeed et al., 2014)

Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, better known as AMOC. Red arrows show warm water circulation in the upper 1100 m and blue arrows show the southward flow of cold, deep water. (Credit: Smeed et al., 2014)

Working out whether this is part of a long-term trend is a difficult task, as records of deep ocean oxygen only stretch back to 70 years ago. Only a longer record of observations will help determine the trend, but for now we can be sure that shoaling oxygen minimum zones will change the amount of habitat available to species either side of the line between oxygen-rich and oxygen-poor.

By Sara Mynott, EGU Communications Officer

References:

Gilly, W. F., Beman, J. M., Litvin, S. Y., & Robison, B. H.: Oceanographic and biological effects of shoaling of the oxygen minimum zone. Annual Review of Marine Science, 5, 393-420, 2013

Smeed, D. A., McCarthy, G. D., Cunningham, S. A., Frajka-Williams, E., Rayner, D., Johns, W. E., Meinen, C. S., Baringer, M. O., Moat, B. I., Duchez, A., and Bryden, H. L.: Observed decline of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation 2004–2012, Ocean Sci., 10, 29-38, 2014

Geosciences Column: Larvae, Climate and Calcification

The absorption of atmospheric CO2 by the oceans results in a decline in ocean pH, hence ‘ocean acidification’, and reduces the availability of carbonate. This presents a problem to calcifying organisms (those that deposit calcium as either calcite or aragonite as hard parts) because they cannot produce their shells, valves (in the case of bivalves), or tests (in the case of diatoms) as readily.

To explain this, we need a little chemistry. When CO2 dissolves, it combines with water to form carbonic acid (H2CO3). This then breaks down to form bicarbonate (HCO3) when one hydrogen ion is lost, and then carbonate (CO32-) as the other hydrogen ion is lost. This carbonate is the important stuff, as it combines with calcium to form the calcium carbonate (CaCO3) used by bivalves to produce shells. If something (such as the ocean) is more acidic, there must be more hydrogen ions available. These hydrogen ions interfere with the calcification process as they bond with carbonate, meaning there is less available for shell formation.

Calcification: carbonate chemistry in action!

This process is relatively well established for a number of calcifying organisms, although there are exceptions to (the coccolith, Emiliania huxleyi, for example) and the response to elevated CO2 levels is not uniform across species.

Much of current research has focussed on the effect of constant CO2 levels on calcification, but what about animals that live in environments where the CO2 concentration is constantly changing? The availability of carbonate in estuaries is particularly variable as CO2 concentrations vary seasonally (there’s a greater carbon load in the winter as storms wash nutrients into rivers), diurnally and with the tide. The impact of elevated CO2 levels on an organism is also dependant on its life stage; something that is particularly true of bivalves.

Bivalve larvae. Photo credit: Minami Himemiya (source).

Bivalves spend the first part of their life in the plankton, first as a veliger (a relatively amorphous looking ciliated blob) and then as a pediveliger (that same blob, but this time with an identifiable foot) before metamorphosing into a miniature adult. During these larval stages, they are particularly vulnerable to ocean acidification and, until recently, both the reasons behind this, and the longer-term implications of this vulnerability, were unclear.

This is where doctors Christopher Gobler and Stephanie Talmage come in. They took to the lab to tackle why larvae are especially vulnerable to acidification and what this means for them in both the short and long term. It’s impossible to take a look at how all bivalves respond to acidification, though, so to tackle these questions, two bivalve species, the hard-shelled clam (Mercenaria mercenaria) and the Atlantic bay scallop (Argopecten irradians) joined the team.

The Atlantic bay scallop, Argopecten irradians. Photo credit: Rachael Norris and Marina Freudzon (source).

Using their RNA:DNA ratio as a proxy for growth and the uptake of a radioactive calcium isotope, 45Ca, to estimate calcification, Gobler and Talmage found that growth in the presence of elevated CO2 results in individuals of a smaller size. This is because there is less calcium available for uptake. Their findings, revealed that high CO2 concentrations, not only affected size, but also negatively impacted bivalve physiology, as individuals reared in these conditions were found to have thinner shells. Shells are an important defence against predators and the reduction in shell thickness (and hence strength) may put them at greater risk from predation.

The higher the CO2, the slower the calcium uptake: calcium uptake rates of larval Atlantic bay scallop, Argopecten irradians, under different CO2 concentrations over a 12-hour period (Gobler and Talmage, 2013).

When transferred from a high CO2 environment to an environment with an ambient CO2 concentration, larvae grew faster than those in ambient conditions throughout the whole of their development. However, this higher growth rate doesn’t compensate for the low calcification rate during larval stages, as their final is still smaller than individuals reared in ambient conditions at all life stages. This “legacy effect” presents a significant problem for adult bivalves, due to the detrimental impact of reduced calcification on their defences.

By Sara Mynott, EGU Communications Officer

Reference:

Gobler, C. J. and Talmage, S. C.: Short- and long-term consequences of larval stage exposure to constantly and ephemerally elevated carbon dioxide for marine bivalve populations, Biogeosciences, 10, 2241-2253, doi:10.5194/bg-10-2241-2013, 2013.