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

September 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

This month has been a whirlwind of Earth and space science news; the majority focusing on natural hazards. Powerful cyclones, earthquakes, and tsunamis have received significant coverage from the geoscience media. Quickly recap on an action-packed month with our overview:

On 14 September, Hurricane Florence, made landfall in the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, making first contact near Wrightsville Beach in North Carolina then traveling up the East Coast. By the time Florence had reached the US coastline, the cyclone’s sustained wind speed had dropped considerably, downgrading the hurricane from a category 4 to category 1 storm on the Saffir–Simpson scale.

This designation may sound mild, but as many scientists and journalists have pointed out, sluggish hurricanes are especially dangerous, since they are more likely to dump heavy rainfall over a relatively small surface area compared to faster storms that distribute their rainfall over more territory. This proved to be true for Hurricane Harvey, which dumped more than 150 centimetres of rain onto some areas of Houston, Texas.

Hurricane Florence’s record-breaking rainfall forced more than a million people to evacuate their homes, and experts estimate that the storm inflicted damages worth more than $38 billion (USD). The hurricane also produced very concerning environmental damages. In Wilmington, North Carolina, for instance, the the rainfall flooded a pit of coal ash at a power plant, releasing more than 1,530 cubic metres of ash, with much of it likely ending up in a nearby lake.

Across the planet, just one day following Hurricane Florence’s landfall, Super Typhoon Mangkhut wreaked havoc on southeast Asia, pounding the Mariana Islands, the Philippines, China, Taiwan, and Vietnam with strong wind and rain. Reaching wind speed over 240 kilometres per hour, Mangkhut is the most intense storm of the year so far. The New York Times created an interesting three-dimensional visual of the storm’s intensity, using NASA satellite data.

In addition to unleashing incredibly strong winds, the typhoon’s rainfall also triggered deadly landslides. Just outside of the city Baguio, which recorded more than 75 centimetres of rain, more than 40 gold miners were buried under a landslide that hit their bunkhouse.

Big storms like Hurricane Florence and Typhoon Mangkhut are expected to be more frequent in the future as our climate changes. And this stems from many factors; a recent article from the New York Times explains that, due to climate change, the world’s oceans are warming (fueling more hurricane formation), the atmosphere is holding more moisture (leading to wetter storms), hurricane wind speeds are slowing down (causing more concentrated rainfall), and Earth’s sea levels are rising (increasing the risk of flooding).

Last week, a 7.5-magnitude earthquake struck the Indonesian island of Sulawesi, sending a massive tsunami, with waves up to 6 metres high, into Palu Bay, causing massive devastation in the regional capital Palu and surrounding areas. Officials report that nearly 1,350 people have died from the earthquake and tsunami, and the death toll is expected to rise as rescue workers make their way towards more remote places. Scientists told BBC that “a combination of geography, timing and inadequate warnings meant that what happened in Palu was a worst case scenario.”

Map of the September 28, 2018 Palu, Indonesia Earthquake. Credit: USGS.

Indonesian aid workers and humanitarian relief envoys are currently working to provide supplies and assistance to the affected communities. At the same time, scientists are still puzzling over the tsunami’s strength, which caught many experts by surprise. This is because the earthquake’s behavior isn’t known for generating catastrophic tsunamis.

Powerful tsunamis are typically caused by earthquakes with vertical motion, where part of the seafloor juts forward, disturbing the water column and consequently sending massive waves to the coast. The 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, for example, was caused by a 9.1 magnitude megathrust earthquake. On the other hand, last week’s quake is known as a ‘strike-slip earthquake,’ where the ground shifts horizontally. This kind of movement doesn’t move ocean water as dramatically.

“Some early calculations suggest a floor displacement of perhaps half a metre. Significant but generally insufficient to produce the waves that were recorded,” reported the BBC.

While it is too early to tell what exactly happened, scientists suspect that a number of factors could have played part in helping the tsunami gather strength. For example, underwater landslides have been known to trigger tsunamis of similar strength. Additionally Palu Bay’s narrow geometry could have amplified the waves’ height.

The underlying factors that contributed to the event will hopefully become more clear as scientists analyse the series of events in more detail.

What you might have missed

This month, the Japanase spacecraft Hayabusa 2 has sent three robots to the rocky surface of an asteroid near Earth, known as Ryugu. The spacecraft had successfully reached the asteroid this June, after travelling for more than three years. The craft first released two small devices, no bigger than frying pans, which tumbled around the rock’s surface and even sent digital postcards and a short video back home. A few days ago, Hayabusa 2 released a third rover, which will use a suite of different scientific instruments to collect data on the asteroid. “Hayabusa2 itself is likely to make the first of three touchdowns on the asteroid to collect samples later this month,” said Science Magazine.

Links we liked

  • StarTrek creators once said that Spock’s fictional home planet Vulcan orbited the 40 Eridani A star. Now scientists have found an exoplanet that fits the description.
  • Rediscovered: the 19th century geological drawings of Orra White Hitchcock, a pioneering female scientific illustrator
  • Researchers discover that kidney stones grow and dissolve much like geological crystals
  • We all know about lava volcanoes, but have you heard of ice volcanoes? New study suggests that cryovolcanoes have likely been erupting for billions of years on Ceres.
  • This new map of Antarctica is like ‘putting on glasses for the first time and seeing 20/20’

The EGU story

Last week, the EGU hosted its first science-policy dinner debate in Brussels. The event, ‘Horizon Geoscience: overcoming societal challenges, creating change’, was organised in collaboration with the European Federation of Geologists (EFG) and brought together geoscientists, policymakers and industry representatives. On the EGU website, we report on the outcome of the discussion and publish the key findings from the Horizon 2020 Geoscience Survey conducted earlier this year.

Panel members during the Horizon Geoscience dinner debate. From Left to right: Jonathan Bamber, John Ludden Lieve Weirinck, Jean-Eric Paquet and Vitor Correia

In the past few weeks, we have also issued three press releases highlighting research published in some of EGU’s open access journals. Follow the links to find out how bombing raids in the Second World War impacted the ionosphere, how glacial geoengineering could help limit sea-level rise, and what the point of no return for climate action might be.

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.

February GeoRoundUp: the best of the Earth sciences from across the web

Drawing inspiration from popular stories on our social media channels, as well as unique and quirky research news, this monthly column aims to bring you the best of the Earth and planetary sciences from around the web.

Major stories

The biggest story in Europe right now is the bone-chilling cold snap sweeping across the continent. This so-called ‘Beast from the East’ sharply contrasts with the Arctic’s concerningly warm weather. Scientists believe these warming events are related to the Arctic’s winter sea ice decline, which makes the region more vulnerable to warm intrusions from storms.

While a cold front covered most of Europe, warm air invaded the Arctic last week.
Credit: Climate Reanalyzer

However, we also wanted to highlight a couple of big stories from earlier in the month that may be less fresh in your memory.

Falcon Heavy

This month Elon Musk, the founder, CEO and lead designer of SpaceX, captivated a global audience when his company successfully launched the Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, USA.

The numbers associated with the rocket are staggering. SpaceX reported that the spacecraft’s 27 engines generated enough power to lift off 18 Boeing 747 ‘Jumbo Jets.’ The Falcon Heavy is currently the most powerful launch vehicle in operation and second only to the Saturn V rocket, which dispatched astronauts to the moon in the 1960s and 70s. The Guardian reports that the rocket “is designed to deliver a maximum payload to low-Earth orbit of 64 tonnes – the equivalent of putting five London double-decker buses in space.” Despite the rocket’s immense payload capacity, Musk opted to send just one passenger, a spacesuit-donned mannequin aptly named ‘Starman.’ The dummy sits aboard a cherry red Tesla Roadster with David Bowie tunes blasting from the speakers.

While Starman embarked on its celestial journey, two of the rocket’s three boosters successfully returned to the space centre unscathed via controlled burns. The third booster failed to land on its designated drone ship and instead crashed into the Atlantic Ocean at nearly 500 kilometers per hour.

SpaceX currently plans to fine-tune the Falcon Heavy and work on its successor, the Big Falcon Rocket, which Musk hopes could be used to shuttle humans to the Moon, Mars, or across the world in record time.

In a news report, BBC News listed some of the other possibilities that SpaceX could pursue with a rocket this size. Two of which include:

  • “Large batches of satellites, such as those for Musk’s proposed constellation of thousands of spacecraft to deliver broadband across the globe.
  • Bigger, more capable robots to go to the surface of Mars, or to visit the outer planets such as Jupiter and Saturn, and their moons.”

And what’s in store for Starman? Scientists estimate that the Tesla Roadster will orbit around the sun for millions of years, likely making close encounters with Earth, Venus, and Mars. They also report a small chance that the Tesla could face a planetary collision with either Earth (6 percent chance) or Venus (2.5 percent chance) in the next million years. However, even if the Tesla can escape collisions, it won’t be able to avoid radiation damage.

Cape Town’s water crisis

On 13 February South Africa declared Cape Town’s current water crisis a national disaster. Plagued by a three-year drought, the coastal city has been close to running out of water for some time, but this new announcement from government officials comes after reevaluating the “magnitude and severity” of drought. This reclassification means that the national government will now manage the crisis and relief efforts.

The declaration came a few weeks following Cape Town’s new water conservation measures, which limits individual water consumption to 50 litres a day. For comparison, residents from the UK use on average 150 litres of water per person daily. US citizens each consume on average more than 300 litres of water per day.

These new regulations, coupled with recent water use reductions and minor rainfall, will now push ’Day Zero,’ when Cape Town essentially runs out of water, from 12 April to 9 July. Day Zero more specifically marks the date in which the city’s primary water source, six feeder dams, is expected to drop below 13.5 percent capacity. At this level, the dams would be considered unusable and the government would cut off homes and businesses of tap water. Instead, the city’s four million residents would be forced to collect daily 25-litre water rations at one of the 200 designated pick-up points. If the city reaches this day, it would become the first modern city to run out of municipal water.

Scientists believe that Cape Town’s severe drought, considered the worst in over a century, is likely a result of Earth’s changing climate. In 2007 the Department of Water Affairs and Forestry warned that the area would likely experience hotter and drier seasons with more irregular rainfall due to climate change. However, experts note that the drought alone is not to blame for the national disaster. Poor water infrastructure, reluctance from the government to act on drought warnings, and inequality are also substantially responsible for the current crisis.

“What is now certain is that Cape Town will become a test case for what happens when climate change, extreme inequality, and partisan political dysfunction collide,” reports The Atlantic.

A dried up section of the Theewaterskloof dam near Cape Town, South Africa, on January 20, 2018. Credit: The Atlantic

In order to ‘Defeat Day Zero’ Cape Town officials hope to limit city water consumption to 450 million litres per day, but as of now residents use on average 526 million litres of water. In addition to promoting water conservation techniques, the city is also rushing to construct desalination plants, implement wastewater recycling, and drill into aquifers within the region. The latter initiative deeply concerns ecologists, who argue that depleting these groundwater resources would endanger dozens of endemic species and threaten the ecosystems unique diversity.

Other news stories of note

The EGU story

Early this month we issued a press release on research published in one of our open access journals. The new study reveals novel insights into Earth’s ozone layer.

“The ozone layer – which protects us from harmful ultraviolet radiation – is recovering at the poles, but unexpected decreases in part of the atmosphere may be preventing recovery at lower latitudes, new research has found. The new result, published today in the European Geosciences Union journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, finds that the bottom part of the ozone layer at more populated latitudes is not recovering. The cause is currently unknown.”

This month also saw the online release of the 2018 General Assembly scientific programme, which lists nearly 1000 special scientific and interdisciplinary events as well as over 17,000 oral, PICO and poster sessions taking place at this year’s meeting. The EGU issued a statement stressing that all scientific presentations at the General Assembly have equal importance, independent of format.

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.

GeoTalk: Matt Taylor of ESA’s Rosetta mission

GeoTalk: Matt Taylor of ESA’s Rosetta mission

In November 2014, space exploration history was made. Millions of kilometres away, orbiting a piece of ice and rock, the European Space Agency’s (ESA) Rosetta mission sent its probe Philae to become the first spacecraft to soft-land on a comet.

rosetta_tweet1

After the tense 7-hour wait that followed the separation from the main orbiter, a tweet confirmed that the little lander had successfully completed the first part of its mission. Following a 10-year journey through space, on the back of the Rosetta spacecraft, Philae had successfully touched down on comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko.

Tweet_rosetta

The story of Rosetta and Philae will go down in the history books, like others before it, and ignite the imagination of children and adults alike, for whom space is the ultimate frontier.

These great stories of space exploration have inspired the 2016 Geosciences Information For Teachers (GIFT) workshop: The Solar System and Beyond, which took place during the EGU General Assembly in Vienna. The symposium combined presentations on current research by leading scientists with hands-on activities presented by science educators for 80 teachers from 20 different countries.

The keynote lecture was given by Matt Taylor, the Rosetta Project Scientist at ESA, who told the remarkable story of Rosetta and its companion, Philae. I was lucky to catch up with Matt during the conference and we spoke about the GIFT workshop, science fiction, and life after Rosetta (with the mission end now confirmed for September 2016).

 

Matt, thank you for talking to me today. Before we get stuck into details about the Rosetta mission and your time at the conference, could you tell our readers a bit more about your role as project scientist for the mission?

I basically act as a link between the scientific community and ESA. There are many instruments on board Rosetta and Philae, with each of their operations being coordinated by a lead scientist. With such a mix of instruments, all pointing in different directions and with different goals, it’s up to me to coordinate the work of the lead scientists and ensure that we get everything we need to do, done. I try to make sure everyone is happy, or unhappy, as the case may be!

I also provide outreach support for the mission, by giving public lectures and taking part in projects such as the GIFT workshop here at EGU 2016.

The aim of the GIFT workshops is to spread first-hand scientific information to science teachers which they can then use in the classroom to inspire their students and engage them with science. Often, outreach efforts are directed towards the students themselves, so why do you think it is important to inspire teachers about science too?

Matt Taylor speaking at the 2016 General Assembly. Credit: Laura Roberts/EGU

Matt Taylor speaking at the 2016 General Assembly. Credit: Laura Roberts/EGU

It is fundamentally important. Teachers are the ones who really engage school children with a subject. But to do that, it is important to equip them with the right tools, while at the same time trying to engage and inspire them too. That way they can take those tools back to the classroom.

Truth be told, I find it inspiring talking to teachers. After the lecture today I was struck by how motivated and engaged the teachers participating in the GIFT workshop are! One of the teachers, who teaches science at a city school, told me how good it was for them to see science in action [at the conference] and be exposed to STEM subjects.

 

And what is it about space, do you think, that captures so many people’s imagination and is such a great tool to engage the masses with science?

Space has that ‘WOW’ factor. Yet it is also relatable because you can look up and perceive it through the night sky.

Then there is that adventurous aspect to it. It’s the going out there and exploring the unknown. It makes us appreciate we are so tiny and really draws on the idea of ‘where do we come from?’

It is to do with how you package it, and science fiction helps really helps with that. Take the Star Trek films.

And pictures really help. Images allow you to put science ideas across very easily and in a very engaging way – and space gives us a lot of incredible images to work with.

Comet 67P on 14 March 2015 – taken by the NavCam. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

Comet 67P on 14 March 2015 – taken by the NavCam. Credit: ESA/Rosetta/NAVCAM – CC BY-SA IGO 3.0

There is no doubt that the Rosetta mission caught the attention of the media and public alike! So let’s talk about it a little bit more. What about the mission, would you say is, scientifically speaking, the most exciting?

Comets are the building blocks of life. Studying them has a real connection to the bigger picture stuff: where do we come from, how did the solar system form? For me, the findings of the mission contributing to that has to be the most exciting part.

And on a personal level, what is it like working on the mission and why is it exciting?

It’s, actually, just a normal job.

Day to day the work can be quite boring. A lot of my time is spent coordinating projects, going to meetings… same as anyone else. It’s when I give talks and take part in outreach events such as the ones here at the General Assembly that I am reminded about how cool this mission really is.

Recently, I’ve been excited to work on the final trajectory scenario and deciding how are we going to ‘end’ Rosetta.

Not so cool, are the conspiracy theories and being trolled on twitter, repeatedly, about whether Philae actually ever landed on comet 67P.

You mention the end of Rosetta, what is next for the mission?

The mission will end, operationally, in September. After that we’ll be focusing 100% on the science including ensuring all the data from the mission is in the best format for future scientists. There will be findings coming out of the mission for some time yet! In fact, school students now will be able to work on Rosetta data in graduate school! That’s how important and groundbreaking this mission is.

And once the mission is over, what is next for you?

Chances are I’ll be allocated to another mission, but that will depend on what the science community are pushing for [in terms of new missions] currently and whether my expertise are a good fit.

It’s unlikely I’ll work on something as big as Rosetta again. Funding for space missions is allocated well in advance and there is nothing in the pipe-line on the scale of Rosetta.

But I’m ok with that. I’m actually looking forward to a quieter life. Working on Rosetta has meant letting a few things go by the way side and I’ll now have time to start exercising and looking after my health a little more!

Even though there won’t be another Rosetta, which upcoming missions do you think are ones to watch?

I, personally, don’t think there is anything like Rosetta coming up soon. Rosetta has lots of elements that make it so attractive: the science is exciting, it takes us to the limits of space exploration, it was the first known comet and yet before we got there we had no idea what 67P looked like….

That said there are some exciting missions coming up: JUICE – JUpiter ICy moons Explorer – which is headed to Jupiter in 2022 and will study the gas giant and three of its icy moons. It gets there in

Matt is a self-confessed metal head. Credit: Matt Taylor

Matt is a self-confessed metal head. Credit: Matt Taylor

2030 – the year I’m due to retire!

I’ll also be keeping my eye on BepiColombo, ESA’s first mission to Mercury, and the Solar Orbiter, which will make the closest approach, ever, to the Sun and study solar wind.

I thought we could finish the interview on a light note. In the past I’ve asked scientists I’ve interviewed to come up with a brand new chemical element. If you could invent an element, what would it be and what would it do?

It would have to be Limenium – after Lemmy, frontman of the rock band Motörhead. It would allow you to exude rock & roll!

[As well as being a physicist, Matt is a self-confessed metal head, so much so he was recently awarded the Spirit of the Hammer of the Golden Gods].

 

Interview by Laura Roberts Artal, EGU Communications Officer

 

Further reading:

  • The Rosetta Blog: For all the science prior to and after the comet landing.
  • Find out more about the Rosetta mission: http://rosetta.esa.int/
  • DLR, the German space agency, played a major role in building the Philae lander and runs the lander control centre.
  • The Philae Blog: to recap exciting moments of the little lander’s mission.
  • Ambition, the film: a short science fiction film that tells the story of comet-chasing spacecraft Rosetta