EGU Blogs

Space weather

The coolest way to visualise how planets work

The coolest way to visualise how planets work

It’s not always easy visualising the complex processes which operate on planet Earth. Even more difficult, at least for me, is explaining them to others. That’s why I’m always on the look out for tools that might just help me with that and which I can share with others too. Enter the NASA Visualisation Explorer, and the Scientific Visualization Studio (SVS), which I came across recently.

The first of the two is a cool little app which can you get straight on your mobile device. You can keep up with all of NASA’s most recent findings and search for animations, visualisations and images of the Earth and Sun. I’ve unashamedly taken from the page intro here, but I think it does a great job of explaining what the site aims to do:

“The NASA Visualization Explorer the coolest way to get stories about NASA’s exploration of the Earth, sun, moon, planets and universe.”

Next up, the SVS: If you ask me, a great communication tool, packed with more images, animations and visualisations, which are created by the SVS in collaboration with researchers and scientists. You could literally spend hours exploring the content on the site. The best bit? All the visualisations (of which there are more than 5,500) are free to download!

To showcase just one example of what you can look forward to on the site (just a warning, you could spend hours exploring the content!), I’ve downloaded one of my current favourites: a video showing solar wind hitting Mars’ magnetic field. The video, is part of a series of resources associated with the recent discoveries by the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) mission about how Mars lost it’s atmosphere.

MAVEN has been able to determine that solar wind – a stream of particles, mainly protons and electrons, flowing from the sun’s atmosphere at a speed of about one million miles per hour – stripped the red planet of it’s atmosphere. The findings have huge implications about how crucial it is that the Earth has sustained its magnetic field throughout its lifetime -something which I’ve written about before (and is closely related to my PhD, so I was v. excited about these recent findings).

Towards better quantifying human impacts: Looking back on the PAGES Workshop in Leuven

Firstly, I’d like to express my sincere thanks to Dr Jennifer Clear (Czech University of Life Sciences, Prague) for her input to this blog article.

The first week of February saw dozens of scientists arrive at the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven for the PAGES Focus 4 Workshop. This event brought together geomorphologists, soil scientists, palaeoecologists, archaeologists and palaeolimnologists to discuss how we can better quantify past human impacts on the landscape. It became clear this is a research question of great importance for the present-day management and conservation of terrestrial and aquatic ecosystems, as those tasked with the job must be well-informed of what actually is the ‘natural state’ of a particular environment. However, climatic fluctuations and human activity have modified the landscape to an enormous degree throughout the Holocene (the past ~10 000 years) and beyond. Depending on how far back in time you look, the assessment of the local ‘natural’ condition is highly variable and may well be very different from the landscape observed today. Improving our estimates of human-driven land cover change was therefore the focus of this Workshop, although the approaches and the timescales of interest vary considerably, as we saw during the first two days of oral presentations and poster sessions. For those interested, the book of abstracts is available here and the full line-up of speakers is listed here.


The schedule of the conference saw two full days of talks and poster sessions, followed by a field excursion on Day 3 and finished with two days of detailed small group discussions around specific topics. The breadth of talks was remarkable; those with impressive visual animations really stick in my mind, such as Dan Penny (University of Sydney) showing aerial LIDAR images of Angkor Wat (Linked to recent paper in PNAS). These images are acquired using lasers capable of penetrating dense forest cover; a remarkable pattern of roads, canals and building outlines was revealed after the vegetation cover was computationally removed. Simulations of global land cover changes through the Holocene from Jed Kaplan (many of his animations are available on the ARVE YouTube channel and Kees Klein Goldewijk were really impressive and many impressive vegetation reconstructions across Europe using various models to interpret high-resolution pollen data were also shown. Other case studies showed the dramatic effects of the agricultural revolution on sediment flux and changes in vegetation around the world. Integrating these local datasets to see more of the regional or global picture of land cover change, often termed up-scaling, arose as a focal point of discussion throughout the week and remains a key area of future work.

I was delighted to have been invited to give a talk illustrating how lake sediment sequences can contribute to our understanding of human-environment interactions on various timescales. Examples in my talk included a dramatic spike in sediment flux during the mid-Holocene linked to local human occupation and demonstrating how volumetric assessments of sediment and heavy metal fluxes can be calculated accurately by extracting multiple cores across a single lake basin. My slides are available on FigShare for anyone interested.

The field excursion on Day 3 was a wonderful exploration of the River Dilje catchment, where many of the Workshop organisers have invested considerable time and effort in recent years to establish a comprehensive sediment budget spanning the Holocene (for example, Notebaert et al., 2009). Other stops included a neat site where a chain of large gullies, most likely formed during the Roman occupation in the area, have been preserved beneath forest regrowth (fossilized, in essence), and the L’abbaye de Villers, one of the most impressive ruined Cistercian Abbeys I have visited. We were also treated to a coffee (and cake) stop halfway through the day from a mobile van; something I am keen to introduce to future field work expeditions here in the UK!

Photo: D. Schillereff

L’abbaye de Villers. Photo: D. Schillereff

L'abbaye de Villers. Photo: D. Schillereff

L’abbaye de Villers. Photo: D. Schillereff

The discussion sessions over the final two days were an eye-opening and invaluable experience for me. I’d been advised by experienced colleagues to get involved as much as possible and I certainly felt rewarded for doing so after some of the fascinating debates and knowledge shared from others, especially in the session focused around limnic (lake-derived) and marine sediments. As far as I can recall, I only said one stupid thing where everyone in the room looked at me quizzically! Engaging in the discourse for brainstorming future grant proposals, including identifying opportunities within the new PAGES structure and Future Earth initiative was exceptionally useful, both in terms of possibilities for opening future doors and better understanding the input required to put together large project proposals.

Some final personal observations then… I was surprised by the modest number of delegates whose research focused on lake sediments, because palaeolimnologists investigating records spanning the Holocene or more recent time periods almost always must consider humans as a possible driver of environmental changes captured in the sediment cores. I see many opportunities for further engagement with geomorphologists and soil scientists investigating catchment sediment budgets to link their assessments to lake-based reconstructions. Real progress seemed to be made during this Workshop in terms of sharing data and methodologies between disciplines, which is a great success. After my experience last week, I certainly believe all opportunities for fostering inter-disciplinary conversations on topics of mutual interest should be grasped.

The Earth’s protective shield

Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Author: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

Credit: Wikimedia Commons,
Author: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SwRI

I came across this video, which very clearly explains how the Earth’s magnetic field protects us from Solar Storms. It then goes on to explain the link of these phenomena to our planet’s climate. The added bonus is that the images are  very cool and I think the voice over is done by  Liam Neeson…. Does anyone else think so? Anyway, I digress…

For a written account of what is discussed in the brilliant video by NASA, head over to the guest blog post I wrote on Geosphere on how the Earth has an amazing protective shield.


A round-up of some newsworthy geomagnetism stories

Happy New Year to you all!

We’ve had a long Christmas break at Geology Jenga, but we are back! For 2014 we’ve got some really interesting 10 minute interviews lined up, as well as the continuation of the ‘Making the most of your PhD’ series and musings on all the things that interest Dan & I. So without further ado, let’s get started!

The past few weeks and months have seen some exciting newsworthy stories regarding the Earth’s magnetic field. I thought I’d highlight a few of them for our first post of the New Year.

The Aurora that never was.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons, user: United States Air Force, This image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person's official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.

Credit: Wikimedia Commons, user: United States Air Force, This image or file is a work of a U.S. Air Force Airman or employee, taken or made as part of that person’s official duties. As a work of the U.S. federal government, the image or file is in the public domain.

On 7th January, there was a large solar flare with an associated fast traveling Coronal Mass Ejection (CME), which was headed straight for the Earth, and was expected to hit our planet by the 9th of January. Space weather scientists, the media and people across the UK and Europe were glued to the night skies in hopes of seeing aurora borealis at abnormally southerly latitudes. Perhaps the excitement surrounding the potential to observe these mysterious phenomena was fueled, at least in the UK, by the timely airing of the first episode of the new series of Star Gazing Live, in which the team (made up of Prof. Brian Cox and comedian Dara O’Brien) took on the challenge to capture the northern lights.

Space weather has featured heavily in the UK media in the run up to the Christmas, as the UK government pledged a £4.6 million investment in the forecast of space weather. From early this year, the Met Office will forecast, deliver alerts and warnings to key sectors that might be adversely affected by  solar flares and CMEs.

Despite the hype, the skies did not deliver. A great blog post by Dr Gemma Kelly, at the geomagnetism team of the British Geological Survey, explains the reasons behind why the Northern lights didn’t quite happen!

For more information on solar flares, CMEs and why they are important: have a look at my guest blog post for GeoSphere on the Earth’s protective shield and also the information pages of the British Geological Survey.


Magnetic Interactions 2014

For two days last week, I was at Cambridge University at the UK conference for the geomagnetism community. This year there was also a strong international presence. I would usually write a blog post on the highlights of the research that was

Logo courtesy of Richard Harrison.

Logo courtesy of Richard Harrison.

being showcased at the conference; however, the meeting organisers beat me to it! Read about the science behind fundamental, applied rock and mineral magnetism, as well as, how an ancient voyage by naturalist Alexander von Humboldt might help us understand the geomagnetic field prior to the 1800s  in this blog post by Dr. Richard Harrison, of Cambridge University.


It’s been a long time coming: SWARM!

After a long time waiting, the SWARM mission was finally launched on the 22nd November, 2013. A very exciting time for geomagnetist across the globe, as well as the European Space Agency

The SWARM mission is a European Space Agency mission to study the intensity (strength), direction and changes in the Earth’s magnetic field using high precision and resolution measurements collected by instruments aboard three identical satellites. The three satellites will collect data from all the sources of the Earth’s magnetic signal: core, mantle, crust, oceans, ionosphere and the magnetosphere. Two satellites will fly at lower latitudes, whilst the third will fly at a higher altitude to measure all the vectors of the magnetic field and to reduce the uncertainty associated with not having high quality spatial and temporal data.  The data set will be used in models to better understand the Earth’s magnetic behaviour, including how it may be changing over time. It will assist in deciphering processes such as weakening magnetic shield, space weather and radiation hazards.

Photo courtesy of Victoria Ridley, who also baked this impressive SWARM cake!

Photo courtesy of Victoria Ridley, who also baked this impressive SWARM cake!

For a great blog covering the build-up to the mission launch, impressive launch videos and cake, head over to the ESA mission blog. If you are interested in more details about the satellites, the mission aims and all sorts of other details, follow the links in the ESA blog too.