GeoLog

past climate

Imaggeo on Mondays: how short-term storms can impact our landscapes

Imaggeo on Mondays: how short-term storms can impact our landscapes

In the Sierra de Aconquija, a mountain range in the southern Central Andes of Argentina, strong storms often come and go at a moment’s notice, but they can have a long-lasting impact on the Earth’s surface.

The thunderstorm cell featured in this photo formed in less than half an hour, giving all those nearby only a few minutes to take cover. Mitch D’Arcy, a geomorphologist and postdoctoral researcher at the University of Potsdam and the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences, had the opportunity to witness this storm (and snap this picture!) while carrying out field work in the area.

“It was a spectacular experience, pouring heavy rain onto a very localised part of the mountain range, but it was also a hazard because the storm was quickly moving towards us with a lot of lightning. Without any trees around, we were likely targets for lightning strikes!” said D’Arcy. Luckily, he and his colleagues were able to find shelter in their truck while the huge downpour passed over them.

These kinds of thunderstorms are short-lived, but have intense precipitation rates. In this case, the temperature dropped by 14 degrees Celsius, and the storm was accompanied by heavy hail and lightning. And while these natural hazards are transient, they can have a long-term impact on the region’s landscape. Severe storms are capable of triggering landslides and floods and can relocate large amounts of sediment and debris in a short period of time.

D’Arcy is part of an international research programme called StRATEGy (Surface processes, Tectonics and Georesources: The Andean foreland basin of Argentina), which looks into how past and present climate change makes a mark on the terrain of the Argentine Andes, among other topics.

This research is essential for understanding and predicting how human-caused climate change will alter weather patterns and impact surface processes (such as how quickly sediments are eroded and transported across landscapes), according to D’Arcy. Having a better understanding of these surface processes and their sensitivity to the climate could help scientists better inform the public about how to prepare for natural hazards, such as flooding, erosion and landslides.

D’Arcy notes that it’s also important to assess how climate and weather trends will impact the sedimentary record, since it is one of the only physical records that scientists can use to examine how the Earth’s surface has change through time.

“North-western Argentina is a fascinating place to study how climate change affects surface processes, because it has experienced pronounced and abrupt changes in hydroclimate through time,” said D’Arcy. Their research has found that even subtle changes in the region’s climate have produced large changes to the surface environment, impacting how rivers take shape and how sediments move.

For example, while the Sierra de Aconquija is a semi-arid environment today, more than 12,000 years ago it used to be much wetter as a result of global climate changes. In fact, back then the mountain range was covered in glaciers and many of the basins were filled with lakes.

“It’s really important that we understand how different landscapes function and how they react to changes in climate. When we look at places like the southern Central Andes in Argentina, we find that the landscape records interesting signatures of ancient climate changes in Earth’s past. However, one of the big questions we still don’t have a good answer to, is how important are these very intense but rare storms for shaping landscapes and creating the sedimentary record from the geological past,” said D’Arcy.

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/.

Geosciences Column: How climate change put a damper on the Maya civilisation

Geosciences Column: How climate change put a damper on the Maya civilisation

More than 4,000 years ago, when the Great Pyramid of Giza and Stonehenge were being built, the Maya civilisation emerged in Central America. The indigenous group prospered for thousands of years until its fall in the 13th century (potentially due to severe drought). However, thousands of years before this collapse, severely soggy conditions lasting for many centuries likely inhibited the civilisation’s development, according to a recent study published in EGU’s open access journal Climate of the Past.

During their most productive era, often referred to as the Classic period (300-800 CE), Maya communities had established a complex civilisation, with a network of highly populated cities, large-scale infrastructure, a thriving agricultural system and an advanced understanding in mathematics and astronomy. However, in their early days, dating back to at least 2600 BCE, the Maya people were largely mobile hunter-gatherers, hunting, fishing and foraging across the lowlands.

Around 1000 BCE, some Maya communities had started to transition away from their nomadic lifestyles, and instead were moving towards establishing more sedentary societies, building small villages and relying more heavily on cultivating crops for their sustenance. However, experts suggest that agricultural practices didn’t gain momentum until 400 BCE, raising the question as to why Maya development was delayed for so many centuries.

By analysing two new palaeo-precipitation records, Kees Nooren, lead author of the study and a researcher at Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and his colleagues were able to gain insight into the environmental conditions during this pivotal time, and the impact that climate change could have had on the Maya society.

To determine the regional climate conditions during this period of time, the authors examined a beach ridge plain in the Mexican state of Tabasco, off the Gulf of Mexico, which contains a long-term record of ridge elevation changes for much of the late Holocene. Since precipitation has a large influence on the elevation of this beach ridge, this record is a good indicator of how much rainfall and flooding may have occurred during Maya settlement.

A large part of the central Maya lowlands (outlined with a black dashed line) is drained by the Usumacinta (Us.) River (a). During the Pre-Classic period this river was the main supplier of sand contributing to the formation of the extensive beach ridge plain at the Gulf of Mexico coast (b). Periods of low rainfall result in low river discharges and are associated with relatively elevated beach ridges. Taken from Nooren, K et al., 2018

Additionally, the researchers also assessed core samples taken from Lake Tuspan, a shallow body of water in northern Guatemala that is situated within the Central Maya Lowlands. Because the lake receives its water almost exclusively from a small section of the region (770 square kilometres), its sediment layers provide a good record of rainfall on a very local scale.

The image on p. 74 of the Dresden Codex depicts a torrential downpour probably associated with a destructive flood (Thompson, 1972). Taken from Nooren, K et al., 2018

The research team’s analysis suggested that, starting around 1000-850 BCE, the region shifted from a relatively dry climate, to a wetter environment. Such conditions would have made a farming in this region more difficult and less appealing compared to foraging and hunting. The researchers suggest that this change in climate could be one of the reasons why Maya agricultural development was at a standstill for such a long time.

The researchers also propose that this long-term climate trend could have been brought on by a shift of the Intertropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ), a region near the equator where northeast and southeast winds intermingle and where most of the Earth’s rain makes landfall. The position of this zone can move naturally in response to Earth’s changes in insolation, and a northerly shift of the ITCZ could help account for some of the morphological changes the authors observed in the precipitation records.

After more than 450 years of excessive rainfall and large floods, the records then suggest that the region experienced drier conditions once again. By this time period, the Maya populations began to rapidly intensify their farming efforts and develop major cities, further suggesting that the wet conditions may have helped delay such efforts.

This is not the first time the Nooren and his colleagues have found evidence of major environmental influence on the Maya civilisation. For example, earlier research led by Nooren suggests that, in the 6th century, the El Chichón volcano in southern Mexico released massive amounts of sulfur into the stratosphere, triggering global climate change that likely contributed to a ‘dark age’ in Maya history for several decades. During this time, often referred to as the “Maya Hiatus,’ Maya societies experienced stagnation, increased warfare and political unrest. The research results were presented at the 2016 General Assembly and later published in Geology.

The results of these studies highlight how changes in our climate have greatly influenced communities and at times even shaped the course of societal history, both for better and for worse.

By Olivia Trani, EGU Communications Officer

References

Ebert, C. et al.: Regional response to drought during the formation and decline of Preclassic Maya societies. Quaternary Science Reviews 173:211-235, 2017

Nooren, K., Hoek, W. Z., Dermody, B. J., Galop, D., Metcalfe, S., Islebe, G., and Middelkoop, H.: Climate impact on the development of Pre-Classic Maya civilization. Clim. Past, 14, 1253-1273, 2018

Nooren, K.: Holocene evolution of the Tabasco delta – Mexico : impact of climate, volcanism and humans. Utrecht University Repository (Dissertation). 2017

Nooren, K. et al.: Explosive eruption of El Chichón volcano (Mexico) disrupted 6th century Maya civilization and contributed to global cooling, Geology, 45, 175-178, 2016

Press conference: Volcanoes, climate changes and droughts: civilisational resilience and collapse. European Geosciences Union General Assembly 2016

Caltech Climate Dynamics Group, Why does the ITCZ shift and how? 2016

Living in a new Age

Living in a new Age

If you were suddenly told you were living in a different time period, what would your immediate reaction be? Changes in the calendar – even if it’s just terminology – have proven emotive in the past. In 1752, when England shifted from the Julian to Gregorian calendars, and 11 days were cut from 1752 to catch up, there are suggestions that civil unrest ensued.

Once again, the name of the period in which we live has recently changed; the Holocene is now subdivided into three parts, and we’re now living in the Meghalayan age, according to the International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS). While there weren’t riots in the streets this time, it has proved controversial for some researchers.

The division of time into different epochs and eras is an important part of stratigraphy. While time marches on, ignorant of the names humans give to its divisions, defining periods like the Cretaceous and Jurassic helps scientists compare results from around the world, even where the fossil and sedimentary records differ. It also draws into sharp focus the globally significant differences between each period, often including the devastating mass-extinctions that mark the boundaries of a handful of these periods.

The Holocene has been for at least a century the term favoured to describe the period in which we live, with its beginning marked by the end of the last ice age. The date at which the Holocene began has been more and more closely defined by experts over time, to the now accepted value of approximately 11,650 calendar years before present. The Holocene period encompasses the emergence of human civilisation, and represents a period of relatively warmer, somewhat stable climate in comparison with the prior ice age.

After considerable debate, however, the ICS has decided that the Holocene should be further subdivided; now, the period from 11,650 and 8,200 years before present is the Greenlandian; the Northgrippian stretches from 8,200 to 4,200 years before present, and the Meghalayan defines the time between then and the present. Why did the Holocene need to be divided up as such? If it wasn’t broken, why fix it?

The International Commission on Stratigraphy (ICS) has updated the timeline for the earth’s full geologic history, dividing the Holocene into three distinct periods. What does that mean for the Anthropocene? (Credit: International Commission on Stratigraphy)

The distinctions between an ice age and a warmer period, also known as an interglacial period, are globally significant, and a good place to start when describing how Earth’s climate has changed over the past few hundred thousand years. The swings in global temperature and ice extent are large enough that we often ignore the subtler climate changes that occur within an interglacial or glacial period. However, sediment and fossil records from more recent eras are relatively well preserved (simply because those records have had less chance to be destroyed by other geological processes), and this enables us to explore more recent periods in finer detail. Looking within the Holocene, the transition between the Greenlandian and Northgrippian is marked by a dramatic cooling of the climate, while the Northgrippian – Meghalayan by an abrupt ‘mega-drought’ and cooling that affected the nascent agricultural societies developing at that time.

By dividing the Holocene into these bite-sized chunks, the ICS has drawn attention to these changes in the earth’s geological system and provided a global context to the climatic shifts of the last ten thousand years. It also helps emphasise that climate can and does change on timescales more abrupt that glacial-interglacial periods – something we need to remember when considering the likely effects of anthropogenic climate change.

So far, so scientific. So why have the changes upset some people? Well, there’s an elephant in the stratigraphic room that looms larger now that these changes have been officially ratified. If there’s anything that has marked out the Holocene as fundamentally different from other historical ages, it’s the growth of human society. In particular, we are now at a point in history where the actions of a specific species – humans – can have global effects on the stratigraphic record.

Humans have added large quantities of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, sown radioactive isotopes across the oceans from nuclear bomb testing, and left waste deposits in environments from the top of Mt Everest to the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Many of these impacts could leave lasting traces in the sedimentary and fossil records, leading to some scientists calling for a new period of time – the Anthropocene. And this may not fit well with the ICS changes.

I spoke with Helmut Weissert, President of the EGU Stratigraphy, Sedimentology and Palaeontology Division about these changes, and he suggested that the new changes devised by the ICS might shift the debate over the Anthropocene, at least in the short term:

I am quite worried. After the introduction of the new subdivisions I cannot see how the Holocene working group soon will vote for a further subdivision of the Holocene. The Anthropocene working group is confronted with a difficult task. I can envisage that the Anthropocene will be used as an informal term, not officially defined and introduced into the Stratigraphic Chart. I use the term regularly in my writing and in talks, everybody understands the term, I can explain how man is a geological agent. So, we may have to continue using an excellent term which is not yet properly defined, but most people do not care about the definition.

The Anthropocene is certainly an effective term to draw the attention of the wider public to the impact of society on global geological cycles. But from a stratigraphic perspective, it offers a number of challenges. Where and when, for example, should the beginning of the period be set? Changes in geological periods require specific chemical changes that can be identified globally and an internationally agreed upon reference point – a physical location – that defines the base of the section. There are many potential examples that could be chosen to define the beginning of human interference in the natural system; ice cores showing the uptick in carbon dioxide at the industrial revolution, or ocean sediments attesting to nuclear bomb tests in the 1950s. But the choice of which section to pick is fraught.

Each stratigraphic division needs a reference point that defines the split between the prior time period and the one in question. Here, a ‘golden spike’ defines the base of the Ediacaran period (635 million years ago) in the Flinders Ranges of South Australia. (Credit: Bahudhara via Wikimedia Commons)

Moreover, preservation is a crucial part of stratigraphy; how much of human impact will in fact be preserved, especially after further anthropogenic changes? What if we clean up the environment? What if we dredge the ocean floor for rare metals, and, in doing so, extirpate the signal of the 1950s nuclear bomb tests? What if we melt the ice caps that record the incipient CO2 increases from the industrial revolution? Sure, these changes may be recorded elsewhere, but how can we be sure a reference stratigraphic section will remain intact?

And this brings us to a perhaps more philosophical point: what if the human impact on the natural system we see today is only a fraction of what is to come? Any Anthropocene we define now would be based only upon the impact to date, but future changes may make these seem small in comparison. What would come after the Anthropocene? The question echoes that of 20th century philosophers, asking what comes after Post-Modernism? Perhaps instead of stratigraphy, we should look to written history and recorded data to better contextualise our impact.

Whether we end up defining our current era as the Meghalayan, the Anthropocene, or something else, it seems clear that the debate has drawn increased attention to the short-term climate changes – and in particular those driven by human intervention. A better public appreciation of our role within the natural system is a vital step in limiting damaging future climate change.

by Robert Emberson

Robert Emberson is a Postdoctoral Fellow at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and a science writer when possible. He can be contacted either on Twitter (@RobertEmberson) or via his website (www.robertemberson.com)

Geoscience hot topics – Part I: The Earth’s past and its origin

Geoscience hot topics – Part I: The Earth’s past and its origin

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.

There are too many to fit in a single post so we’ve brought some of them together in a series of posts which will tackle three main areas: the Earth’s past and its origin, the Earth as it is now and what its future looks like, while 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 comment section!

 

The Earth’s past and its origin

Rephrasing the famous sentence by James Hutton, i.e. the present is the key to the past, we can even say that the past is the key to the future – a better understanding of past Earth processes can help understand why and how our planet evolved to have oceans, an atmosphere, a planetary magnetic field as well as the ability to sustain life. Not only that, a greater understanding of the Earth’s past can aid in finding solutions to present day problems. A strong interdisciplinary research effort is required to delve into the Earth’s past and that makes it one of the most important geoscience hot topics, albeit very broad.

Life on Earth and the physical environment

Zircons in rocks from Jack Hills in Western Australia provide evidence of oceans 4.4 b.y. ago and of conditions that may have haboured life. The remarkable thing is that these rocks are 300 million years older than the 3.8 billion year old rocks from Greenland, which were thought to hold the oldest evidence for life on Earth, until now.

Image by Robert Simmon, based on data from the University of Maryland’s Global Land Cover Facility

Jack Hills, Western Australia. Image by Robert Simmon, based on data from the University of Maryland’s Global Land Cover Facility

These findings are no doubt very exciting, but they also go hand in hand with gaining a greater understanding about the physical environment in which these early life forms evolved. According to Helmut Weissert, President of the Stratigraphy, Sedimentology and Palaeontology Division (SSP), understanding the co-evolution of life and the physical environment in Earth’s history is one of the biggest challenges for current and future scientists. Understanding past changes of the System Earth will facilitate the evaluation of man’s role as a major geological agent affecting global material and geochemical cycles in the Anthropocene.

The work of scientists in the SSP fields on understanding how the evolution of life was affected by major climatic perturbations is particularly timely, given the ongoing debate as to whether the presence of humans on Earth is potentially driving a sixth mass extinction event. Not only that, a big research question still unanswered is how did catastrophic events during the Earth’s history also affect evolutionary rates?

Developing new models and tools which might aid investigation in these areas is at the forefront of challenges to come, along with a greater interaction between related disciplines, for instance (but of course, not limited to!) the geosciences and genetics.

A changing inner Earth

The Earth’s magnetic field is one of ingredients for the presence of life on Earth, because it screens most of the cosmic rays that otherwise would penetrate in major quantities into the atmosphere and reach the surface, being dangerous for human health.

“A recent discovery is that the absence of magnetic field would cause serious damages not only to humans through a significant increase of cancer cases, but also to plants”, say Angelo De Santis, President of the Earth Magnetism and Rock Physics Division (EMRP), “implying that geomagnetic field reversals characterised by times with very low intensity of the field, would have serious implications for life on the planet”.

Another way to understand this aspect would be to have a look at the past. One of the (many) tools which can be used to understand what our planet might have looked like in its infancy is palaeomagnetism. This is especially true when it comes to one of the biggest conundrums of the Precambrian: when did plate tectonics, as we understand them now, start?

That there was perhaps some form of plate motions in the Earth’s early life is likely, but exactly what the style of those plate motions were during the Precambrian is still highly debated. Palaeomagnetic directions measured over time are used to estimate lateral plate motions associated with modern day style plate tectonics involving subduction. If similar plate motions can be identified in rocks younger than 500Ma then they might support lateral plate motions early in the Earth’s history. This, says Angelo De Santis, is one of the most exciting areas of research within Earth magnetism.

 Earth Magnetic Field Declination from 1590 to 1990 by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons . Click on the image to see how the field changes over time.

Earth Magnetic Field Declination from 1590 to 1990 by U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons . Click on the image to see how the field changes over time.

Not only that, studying the strength of the geomagnetic field (which is generated in the liquid outer core by a process known as the geodynamo) and how it changes over different time scales can give us information about the early inner structure of the planet. For instance, news of a new date for the age of the formation of the inner core, after researches identified the sharpest increase in the strength of the Earth’s magnetic field, hit the headlines recently. The findings imply that maybe some of the views Earth scientists hold about the core of the Earth might need to be revised!

Which leads us onto secular variation – the study of how the geomagnetic field changes, not only in strength but also in direction – because if the early core is different to how it was previously thought, is the understanding of secular variation also affected? The implications are far reaching, but a highlight, according to Angelo De Santis, has to be how the findings might affect how periods of large change (more commonly known as geomagnetic reversals) are understood. Therefore, it is key that the evolution of the geodynamo is better understood, so that scientists might be able to assess the possibility of an imminent excursion (a large change of the field, but not a permanent flip of the direction) or reversal.

From the inner Earth to the surface

If studying the inner depths of the Earth in the past might give us clues about the present and future of the planet’s core, so to on and above the surface the past can be the key to the future.

Geological time spiral" by United States Geological Survey - Graham, Joseph, Newman, William, and Stacy, John, 2008, The geologic time spiral—A path to the past (ver. 1.1): U.S. Geological Survey General Information Product 58, poster, 1 sheet. Available online at http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/2008/58/. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Geological time spiral by United States Geological Survey – Graham, Joseph, Newman, William, and Stacy, John, 2008, The geologic time spiral—A path to the past (ver. 1.1): U.S. Geological Survey General Information Product 58, poster, 1 sheet. Available online at http://pubs.usgs.gov/gip/2008/58/. Licensed under Public Domain via Commons.

Present day climate change is a given, but predictions of how the face of the Earth might change as a result remain difficult to make while, at the same time, its consequences are not yet fully understood. Studying the climate of the past and how the biosphere, oceans and the Earth’s surface (including erosion and weathering processes), responded to abrupt and potentially damaging changes in Earth’s past climate provides a starting point to make forecasts about the future.

“A better time resolution of geological archives means we are able to further test present day climate, weathering and ocean models,” says SSP President Helmut Weissert.

And so, not only does the past tell us where we come from and how the Earth became the only planet in our Solar System capable of sustain complex forms of life, a better understanding of its origins and past behaviour might just help us improve the future too.

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. The question of how we develop the needs for an ever growing population in a way that is sustainable opens up exciting research avenues in the EMRP and SSP Divisions, as well as the Energy, Resources and the Environment (ERE), Seismology (SM) and Earth and Space Science Informatics (ESSI) Divisions.