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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.

IGLUNA: students work towards building an icy human habitat on the Moon!

IGLUNA: students work towards building an icy human habitat on the Moon!

What does it take to build a habitat in ice on the Moon? An international group of university students and professionals is working together to provide this answer and develop a sustainable and operational habitat in lunar ice. The project is called IGLUNA and is organised by the Swiss Space Center and the European Space Agency (ESA) as the first initiative from ESA_Lab, an ESA interuniversity research platform where young professionals across Europe can work together on space projects.

Many of the participating students from Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands presented their work on IGLUNA at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in Vienna last month. Arlene Dingemans, a VU Amsterdam student and project participant, says,

At the moment, we are a pilot team, the first one working on this project, and we really hope that future teams will develop further this research and maybe, one day, we can go to the Moon!

The North Pole of the Moon where potential lunar cups would be located. Credit: NASA

Human life as we know it today, can only survive under specific environmental conditions; we need the right kind temperature, atmosphere, gravity, radiation, and access to oxygen and water to properly function. On Earth, we have all the necessary resources but as far as we know, our planet is the only place where human life can thrive. Thus, it is vital to carry out research and experiments in order to better understand how human life can be sustainable in places with harsh conditions. The Moon is our closest planetary object and the best place to investigate how life can be supported there.

As part of their project, the group will be testing an analog lunar habitat on Earth, on a glacier in Zermatt, Switzerland, under cold and harsh conditions similar to the Moon’s ice craters in the south pole.

Building a habitat in ice on the Moon also has several benefits. Firstly, water (ice) is essential for life as we know it on Earth, but it can also be used to produce oxygen and fuels. Furthermore, ice is a great insulator for cosmic and solar radiation, and it can function as a shield against micrometeorites.

The field campaign will also involve operating several different experiments that could hypothetically  be done on the moon. Operations will start operations on 17 June, lasting until 3 July; during this time the habitat will also be open to the public, allowing visitors to watch and even take part in experiments.

The entrance tunnel into the Glacier Palace in Klein Matterhorn, Zermatt, Switzerland, where the IGLUNA habitat will be constructed. Credit: Swiss Space Center (SSC) / IGLUNA

The research conducted by the VU Amsterdam team in IGLUNA will focus on geological, glaciological, and astrobiological experiments. Bernard Foing, a professor at VU Amsterdam supervising the student team, highlights: “It’s important not only to live on the Moon, but also to do something really useful. We are going to learn about the Moon, about the Earth, [and] do astronomy. Also this project is a way to exchange expertise and to learn a lot through hands-on activities.”

Marc Heemskerk, participant and student coordinator explains:

The simulation aims to prepare ourselves and humanity in the best possible way for going to the Moon and living there in a semi-permanent or permanent basis. And I really think that it’s not a question of whether we will go to the Moon, but of when we will go. So, eventually, we will have to learn how to live there and how to use local resources.

Transferring resources from the Earth to the Moon in order to build a base it is extremely expensive in terms of energy and money, hence, it is vital to use local materials, Heemskerk explains.

The cave in which the IGLUNA habitat will be constructed – 15m below the surface of the Matterhorn Glacier, Switzerland. Credit: Swiss Space Center (SSC) / IGLUNA

The construction of an operational habitat requires knowledge and skill exchange between people from different backgrounds. 20 student teams coming from 13 universities in nine countries around Europe  from multiple disciplines work together to address the challenges of building an effective structure, which one day could be fully independent and operational on the Moon.

Dieke Beentjes, a participating student emphasizes:

What is also interesting is that our research team is already multidisciplinary. We started out as a team of geologists and now we also have biologists, as biological research is different and needs different instruments – to look at DNA and life traces for example.

The scientific equipment includes cameras, a spectrometer, a microscope, telescopes, a seismometer, drones and many others.

This initiative inspires students to think about the idea of a habitat, while increasing international relationships and collaborations. Marjolein Daeter, another project participant says, “It’s more like an opportunity to get to know this world and we get help from our university and ESA to do that. It’s fun to work with different people on this.”

If you are interested about the project, you can follow the link here: https://www.spacecenter.ch/igluna/ 

By Anastasia Kokori, EGU Press Assistant

References

Benavides, T. et al.: IGLUNA – Habitat in Ice: An ESA_Lab project hosted by the SSC. Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 21, EGU2019-17807, 2019 (conference abstract)

Daeter, M. and Dingemans, A.: VU Science Experiments (VUSE) for Igluna, a science showcase for a Moon ice habitat. Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 21, EGU2019-17500, 2019 (conference abstract)

De Winter, B. et al.: VUSE, VU Science Experiments at Igluna, a Science Showcase for a Moon Ice Habitat. 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference 2019 (LPI Contrib. No. 2132) (conference abstract)

Heemskerk, M. V. et al.: IGLUNA Habitat in Ice: An ESA_Lab project hosted by the Swiss Space Center. 50th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference 2019 (LPI Contrib. No. 2132) (conference abstract)

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

August 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 south Indian state of Kerala has suffered unusually heavy monsoon rainfall this month, triggering the worst flooding the state has seen in more than a century.

Officials have reported nearly 500 deaths, while more than one million people have been evacuated to over 4,000 relief camps.

Between 1 and 19 August, the region received 758.6 milimetres of rain, 2.6 times the average for that season. In just two days (15-16 August), Kerala sustained around 270 milimetres of rainfall, the same amount of rainfall that the entire state receives in one month typically, said Roxy Mathew Koll, a climate scientist at the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, to BBC News.

Due to the heavy downpours, rivers have overflowed, water from several dams has been released, and lethal landslides have swept away rural villages.

“Officials estimated about 6,000 miles (10,000km) of roads had been submerged or buried by landslides,” reported the Guardian. “Communications networks were also faltering, officials said, making rescue efforts harder to coordinate.”

Experts report that the event’s severity stems from many factors coming together.

For instance, a recent study led by Koll has shown that in the past 50-60 years, monsoon winds have weakened, delivering less rain on average in India. However, the distribution of rainfall is uneven, with long dry spells punctuated by heavy rainfall events. Koll’s research suggests that central India has experienced a threefold rise in the number of widespread extreme rain events during 1950-2012. In short, it doesn’t rain as often; but when it rains, it pours.

Scientists also say that increased development in the region had exacerbated the monsoon’s impact.

For example, usually when storms release heavy rainfall, much of that water is absorbed or slowed down by vegetation, soil, and other natural obstacles. However, scientists point out that “over the past 40 years Kerala has lost nearly half its forest cover, an area of 9,000 km², just under the size of Greater London, while the state’s urban areas keep growing. This means that less rainfall is being intercepted, and more water is rapidly running into overflowing streams and rivers.”

To make matters worse, increased development can also change how effectively rivers handle heavy downpours. For instance, canals and bridges can make rivers more narrow and can create sediment build-up, which slows water flow. “When there is a sudden downpour, there is not enough space for the water so it floods the surrounding area,” explains Nature.

Some experts have added that badly-timed water management practices are also partly to blame for the flood’s devastation on local communities.

“A contributing factor is that after the heavy rain, authorities began to release water from several of the state’s 44 dams, where reservoirs were close to overflowing. The neighbouring state of Tamil Nadu also purged water from its over-filled Mullaperiyar dam, which wreaked yet more havoc downstream in Kerala,” Nature adds.

While floodwaters began to recede in late August, rescue teams are still searching submerged neighborhoods to deliver aid and evacuate survivors.

What you might have missed

Water on moon confirmed

Recent research published this month suggest that there is almost certainly frozen water on the moon’s surface.

The image shows the distribution of surface ice at the Moon’s south pole (left) and north pole (right). Blue represents the ice locations, plotted over an image of the lunar surface, where the gray scale corresponds to surface temperature (darker representing colder areas and lighter shades indicating warmer zones). (Credit: NASA)

“Previous observations indirectly found possible signs of surface ice at the lunar south pole, but these could have been explained by other phenomena, such as unusually reflective lunar soil,” NASA officials said in a published statement.

Now, scientists involved with the new study claim that they’ve found definitive evidence that ice is located within craters on the moon’s north and south poles.

During daylight hours, the moon’s surface can be brutally hot, often reaching temperatures as high as 100 degrees Celsius. However, due to the moon’s axial tilt, some parts of the lunar poles don’t receive sunlight. Scientists estimate that some craters situated within these permanently dark polar regions are cold enough to sustain pockets of water-ice.

Because the moon’s poles are so dark, scientists have had a hard time studying the lunar craters. But Shuai Li, a planetary researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa and lead author of the study, and his colleagues tried a creative way to shed some light on shadowed craters, using data collected from India’s Chandrayaan-1 lunar probe ten years ago.

“They peered into dark craters using traces of sunlight that had bounced off crater walls,” reports the New York Times. “They analyzed the spectral data to find places where three specific wavelengths of near-infrared light were absorbed, indicating ice water.”

As of now, the researchers still aren’t sure how much ice there is, or how it found its way to the moon’s poles. But if enough accessible ice exists close to the lunar surface, the water could be used as a resource for future missions to the moon, from a source of drinking water to rocket fuel.

Mapping Earth’s winds from above

Also this month, scientists from the European Space Agency launched a satellite that will profile the world’s winds, in hopes that the data will greatly improve weather forecasts and provide insight for long-term climate research. The satellite, named Aeolus after the celestial keeper of the winds in Greek mythology, was sent to orbit from French Guiana on Wednesday 22 August.

The rocket was due to lift off on Tuesday, but the launch was postponed – ironically – due to high altitude winds,” reports BBC News.

Aeolus profiling the word’s winds (Credit: ESA)

Equipped with a Doppler wind lidar, Aeolus will send powerful laser pulses down to Earth’s atmosphere and measure how air molecules and other particles in the wind scatter the light beam.

Researchers expect that wind data from Aeolus will greatly improve current efforts to forecast storms, especially their severity over time. While scientists have many ways to measure wind behavior, current methods are unable to capture wind movement from all corners of the Earth. Aeolus will be the first mission to monitor winds across the entire globe.

Using data collected by Aeolus, experts estimate that the quality of forecasts will increase by up to 15% within the tropics, and 2-4% outside of the tropics.

“If we improve forecasts by 2%, the value for society is many billions of dollars,” said Lars Isaksen, a meteorologist at the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts (ECMWF), to Nature.


Learn how Earth’s wind is generated and why we need to measure it. (Credit: ESA

Links we liked

The EGU story

Do you enjoy the EGU’s annual General Assembly but wish you could play a more active role in shaping the scientific programme? Now is your chance! Help shape the scientific programme of the 2019 General Assembly.

Before the end of today (6 September), you can suggest:

This month we released two press releases from research published in our open access journals. Take a look at them below:

Landslides triggered by human activity on the rise

More than 50,000 people were killed by landslides around the world between 2004 and 2016, according to a new study by researchers at UK’s Sheffield University. The team, who compiled data on over 4800 fatal landslides during the 13-year period, also revealed for the first time that landslides resulting from human activity have increased over time. The research is published today in the European Geosciences Union journal Natural Hazards and Earth System Sciences.

Deadline for climate action – Act strongly before 2035 to keep warming below 2°C

If governments don’t act decisively by 2035 to fight climate change, humanity could cross a point of no return after which limiting global warming below 2°C in 2100 will be unlikely, according to a new study by scientists in the UK and the Netherlands. The research also shows the deadline to limit warming to 1.5°C has already passed, unless radical climate action is taken. The study is published today in the European Geosciences Union journal Earth System Dynamics.

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.