Imaggeo on Mondays: River in a charoite schist

Imaggeo on Mondays: River in a charoite schist

Polarized light photomicrograph of a thin section of a charoite-bearing schist.

Charoite is a rare silicate found only at one location in Yakutia, Russia. For its beautiful and uncommon purple color it is used as a semi-precious stone in jewelry.

Under the microscope charoite-bearing rocks give an overall feeling of movement, with charoite forming fibrous mats that swirl and fold as a result of deformation during metamorphism.

Due to the variable orientation with respect to the polarized light the charoite may exhibit different interference colors. It may be difficult to conceive, but these microstructures tell us that solid rocks can flow! Width of view: 5,4 mm.

Description by Bernardo Cesare, as it first appeared on

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


Mars Rocks – introducing a citizen science project

Mars Rocks – introducing a citizen science project

GeoLog followers will remember our previous report on Citizen Geoscience: the exciting possibilities it presents for the acquisition of data, whilst cautioning against the exploitation of volunteered labour. This blog presents a Citizen Science platform that goes beyond data collection to analysis, specifically for geological changes in remote sensing imagery of Mars. Jessica Wardlaw, a Postdoctoral Research Associate in Web GIS, at the Nottingham Geospatial Institute, introduces ‘iMars’ and explains 1) its scientific mission and 2) why imagery analysis is especially suitable for a crowd sourcing approach, so that you might consider where and how to apply it to your project.

Imagine, just for a moment, that the Mars Geological Survey invited you to an interview for the position of Scientist in Charge. Why and how would you reconstruct the geological past for a remote planet such as Mars? Where would you start? Earth is the “Goldilocks” planet, not only for human habitation but for geologists too, who can sample and test rock to understand the evolution of the Earth’s surface on which to base well-established theories such as plate tectonics. To understand the geological past and processes of remote planets, however, requires different approaches.

Planetary scientists investigate the climate and atmosphere, and the geological terrain, of planets to further understanding of our own place in the solar system. Mars provides a scintillating snapshot of early Earth; whilst some scientists contend that plate tectonics has historically happened on Mars, 70% of its surface dates from the moment it formed and provides a platform from which to view Earth in its infancy. In fact, despite our limited knowledge of Mars, it has already informed our understanding of Earth, inspiring James Lovelock’s Gaia theory. Imminent missions to the red planet are also already exploiting geological information to inform landing sites and routes of roving vehicles on Mars. The more information scientists have, the more likely missions are to land in suitable locations to successfully pursue scientific goals, such as understanding the ability of the Martian environment to support life and water, both now and in the past, which could further theories on the origins of the solar system, life on Earth, and Earth’s destiny.

Many will remember this summer for the astonishing images that arrived from Pluto, but 50 years ago, almost to the day, people celebrated the first successful fly-by mission to Mars. Mariner 4 took 21 images from a distance 6,000 miles, which, after the initial excitement, disappointingly revealed that Mars had a Moon-like cratered surface, and led to a long-held misconception of a dead, red planet. It was in 1976 that two Viking landers touched down on the red soil for the first time, paving the way for further Martian missions, with the first mission of the European Space Agency’s ExoMars programme launching next year.

The first Mars photograph and our first close-up of another planet. A representation of digital data radioed by the Mariner 4 spacecraft on 15th July 1965. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Dan Goods)

The first Mars photograph and our first close-up of another planet. A representation of digital data radioed by the Mariner 4 spacecraft on 15th July 1965. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Dan Goods)

Scientists analyse the size and density of craters from meteorite impacts to age the surface. The theory goes that smaller meteorites collide with a planet much more frequently than larger ones, and older surfaces have more craters because they have been exposed for longer. Advances in imaging technology since then now provide scientists with greater granularity than ever before and glimpses of other geologic features, recognisable from the surface of the Earth; sand dunes, dust devils, debris avalanches, gullies, canyons all appear and tell us about the planet’s climatic processes. The Planet Four website is just one example.

The images taken of Mars over the last forty years reveal changes on the surface that indicate invaluable information that help us to understand the climate and geology of the planet. Changes are visible in imagery over a variety of timescales, from rapidly-moving dust devils (much bigger that the one that once trapped me in Death Valley), seasonal fluctuations of the polar ice caps and recurring slope lineae (recently reported to indicate contemporary water activity) polar ice caps and the snail-slow shaping of sand dunes.

Three images of the same location taken at different times over one Martian year show how the seasonal fluctuation of the polar cap of condensed carbon dioxide (dry ice), between its solid and gaseous state, destabilises a Martian dune at high altitude to cause sand avalanches and ripple changes. (Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

Three images of the same location taken at different times over one Martian year show how the seasonal fluctuation of the polar cap of condensed carbon dioxide (dry ice), between its solid and gaseous state, destabilises a Martian dune at high altitude to cause sand avalanches and ripple changes. (Credit: NASA/JPL/University of Arizona)

The quality and coverage of these images, however, varies greatly due to atmospheric conditions and tilt of the camera amongst other reasons. To create a consistent album of imagery, that we can confidently compare and use to identify geological changes in the images, requires considerable computational work. Images from across as much of the Martian surface as possible must be processed to remove those of poor quality and correct for different coordinate systems (co-registration) and terrain (ortho-rectification).

The iMars project is applying the latest Big Data mining techniques to over 400,000 images, so that they can be used to compute and classify changes in geological features. On a Citizen Science platform, Mars in Motion, volunteers will define the nature and scale of changes in surface features from ortho-rectified and co-registered images to a much greater detail. Human performance is inherently variable in ways we cannot fully control, either, in the same way that we can control the performance of an algorithm. Although we are investigating this too, this would require another blog post! For now I will describe the reasons why we are using a crowd-sourcing approach for this project so that you might consider how you could apply it to your research.

First of all, humans have evolved over millions of years to identify subtle variations in visual patterns to a more sophisticated level than computers currently can. Computers can execute repetitive tasks and store an infinite amount of information with far less impact on their performance than humans; the human mind, however, has proved to be too flexible and creative for computers to fully replicate, with the success of Citizen Science projects such as Galaxy Zoo, which has so far resulted in 48 academic publications. The slow seasonal shift of sand dunes on Mars, for example, would require a computer algorithm of inordinate intelligence to identify, as previous attempts to automatically detect impact craters, valley networks and sand dunes in images of Mars have found. Recent research has resulted in some very sophisticated algorithms for image analysis, but detection of changes in such a range of geological features over the range of spatial and temporal scales that we are looking to do is computationally complex and expensive. Without sending somebody to Mars, how do we know whether the computer is correct? Machine learning algorithms can only calculate what you ask them to, so are ill-equipped to make the sort of serendipitous discoveries of the unknown required in the detection of change. Volunteers in the Mars in Motion project will seek differences (Figure 4), rather than similarities, between the images and it is inherently challenging to program a computer to find something that you don’t even know to look for.

Mars in Motion: Spot the difference...on the surface of Mars!

Mars in Motion: Spot the difference…on the surface of Mars!

Secondly, we have so much data that scientists could not possibly do all of this themselves! In many areas of science and humanities, but especially in Earth and Planetary observation, Big Data capture is growing at an astronomical rate, far faster than resources and techniques for its analysis can keep up so that we are increasingly unable to handle it. This is where geoscientists have started to join the trend for recruiting volunteers to analyse imagery with some success; through large crowd-sourcing image analysis projects, like TomNod, citizens continually contribute interpretation of images for social and scientific purposes. The number of volunteers, however, is finite and the increase in data places more and more demand upon their time. Researchers using the Citizen Science approach must now carefully consider how their projects can utilise volunteers’ time effectively, efficiently and ethically.

Third and finally, a crowd-sourcing approach exposes the public to improvements in imaging technology and brings the dynamic nature of the Martian surface to life. This can only improve the chances of space exploration receiving further funding and entering classrooms through the way it combines many areas of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics. Serendipitously, the engagement of the public also increases the number of pairs of eyes that analyse the images and, as such, the confidence with which scientists can use their classifications. As we collect more and more data, image analysis will necessarily require collaboration between humans and computers, as well as between volunteers and researchers, to manage it.

I hope this post gives you an insight into how we are applying the Citizen Science to consider how it might help your research too. There is actually no better time to try setting up a Citizen Science project with the launch of the Zooniverse project builder, which makes it easier than ever before to build your own project.

By Jessica Wardlaw, researcher at the University of Nottingham

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under the iMars grant agreement no. 607379.

Visit and follow @JessWardlaw for updates on iMars and Mars in Motion.

Exhibits at EGU 2014 – The Face of the Earth

This year, the conference will have a theme: The Face of the Earth. Much like a human face, our planet exhibits a huge diversity of shapes and forms, and the 2014 theme celebrates this diversity in geoscience processes – from the Earth’s core to interplanetary space.

In line with this year’s theme, you’ll find exhibits on each of the Earth’s faces – Rocks of the Earth, Waters of the Earth, Life of the Earth, Atmosphere of the Earth, and Space and the Earth – throughout the General Assembly venue. Here’s a hint of what’s in store…

Rocks smallRocks of the Earth

Bring your own rock. In the Entrance Hall we will be collecting rocks from around the world, where they will be placed on display in our very own stone showcase. Their origin will be mapped for all participants to see in an exhibit made by EGU participants, for EGU participants. Don’t forget to bring yours! Check the rock requirements on the General Assembly website.

Space small

Space and the Earth

What we find on Earth is mirrored in other planets – volcanoes on Venus generate a landscape that looks a lot like ours, despite the planet’s wildly different atmosphere and tumultuous tectonic system. Mars’ dusty surface looks a lot like the Earth’s arid landscapes. Search for the similarities between Earth and its neighbours in the Space and the Earth exhibit (Foyer C, Red Level).

Waters small

Waters of the Earth

Water affects virtually all physical, chemical and biological processes, and has shaped a significant part of human history and culture, as well as our lives today. The Waters of the Earth Exhibit will be, quite aptly, on the Blue Level of the conference centre. We don’t want to give all the exhibitions away though! Come down to the basement to see what it’s all about!

Life smallLife of the Earth

Life on Earth began about 4 billion years ago expanding and adapting to almost every environment imaginable: from the poles to the Equator, and from scalding vents on the sea floor to the tops of icy mountains. On the first floor you’ll find the Life of the Earth Exhibition Spot – a truly global view of life on this planet.

Atmosphere small

Atmosphere of the Earth

The Earth’s atmosphere is an incredible thing. It shields us from solar radiation, supplies us with water and shifts weather systems around the world. The atmosphere of the Earth inspires research at all scales, from the tiniest of aerosols to awe-inspiring phenomena that can be seen from space. This exhibit lets you experience the awesomeness of the atmosphere first-hand. Head to Foyer B on the Red Level.

The EGU General Assembly is taking place in Vienna, Austria (27 April-2 May). Find out more at


For the love of rocks

We often have a way of seeing patterns in otherwise random features, and rock outcrops are no exception.

Pegmatite intrusion in mylonitc granite. (Credit: Lucy Chernale via

Pegmatite intrusion in mylonitc granite. (Credit: Lucy Chernale via

Do you see the heart on its side? To the untrained eye an outcrop like this is simply a heart-shaped feature in an otherwise grey rock. But to the geologist, the layers, swirls, shapes and colours tell a story. The ribbons in the granite show that the rock has been subjected to sheer forces and have slowly deformed in response to them, a process known as ductile deformation. Metamorphic rocks that have deformed in this way are known as mylonites. This sort of deformation only occurs below 4 km depth, meaning that this rock used to be buried deep below the Earth’s crust and has slowly been brought to the surface.

The lighter, heart-shaped area is an intrusion of pegmatite, an igneous rock composed of large crystals (over 1 centimetre long) that would have filled a space in the country rock. Big crystals form when melt cools slowly, and the pegmatite’s centimetre-long ones show the intruding melt was well-insulated by its surroundings, allowing the crystals to grow.

It’s not only the larger patterns within an outcrop that tell a story, but the arrangement of minerals within the rock.  Garnets are relatively common rock-forming minerals, and they’re not always the glossy red gemstones jewellers are after. In fact, the colour of garnet can vary widely depending on its chemical composition.

Heart-shaped garnet in a mafic granulite. (Credit: Barbara Kunz via

Heart-shaped garnet in a mafic granulite. (Credit: Barbara Kunz via

This brown garnet heart sits amid an igneous rock rich in iron and magnesium – a mafic rock. Mafic lava flows relatively easily because it is low in silicates – the minerals that control lava’s viscosity. Its slow-moving counterpart, felsic lava, is filled with feldspar and quartz, and a lot more silicate. Looking at the minerals in an igneous outcrop lets Geologists work out whether the lava flowed rapidly, or was more slow-moving. Volcanologists can make models of the two in the lab using golden syrup, which, like lava, is a Newtonian fluid (a liquid that doesn’t change viscosity when forces act on it).  Adding water to the syrup makes for a more mafic lava and adding lentils, rice and sugar simulates one that is rich in crystals!

Back to the rocks. Microscopes make it possible to view the wonders of rocks on a much smaller scale. You can see the relationship between mineral grains, the condition of the crystals, and piece together the last parts of the rock history puzzle.

Thin section heart

Photo-micrograph of exsolved garnet in lamellar pyroxene. (Credit: Fatima El Atrassi via

A searching through Imaggeo reveals yet another garnet heart! And this one is tiny, a mere 2-3 millimetres across! The garnet is nested within a mineral known as pyroxene. Pyroxene forms at high temperatures and can become unstable as the temperature decreases, causing it to form this striped pattern. The patterns  each mineral forms, and whether they sit as small inclusions or jointed grains can tell us a little more about what happened to the lava as it cooled and crystallised.

Rocks are incredible windows into the history of the Earth, and indeed our solar system. Take a closer look next time you’re on a beach, beside a cliff, or standing on a set of stone steps – you might find out more about the Earth than you were expecting!

By Sara Mynott, EGU Communications Officer