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  • richardmitnick 12:00 pm on August 26, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Earth Sciences,   

    From The Conversation: “Setting aside half the Earth for ‘rewilding’: the ethical dimension” 

    The Conversation

    August 26, 2015
    William Lynn

    Wildlife corridors: four proposals to ‘rewild’ portions of North America. Smithsonian Institute, CC BY-NC

    A much-anticipated book in conservation and natural science circles is EO Wilson’s Half-Earth: Our Planet’s Fight for Life, which is due early next year. It builds on his proposal to set aside half the Earth for the preservation of biodiversity.

    The famous biologist and naturalist would do this by establishing huge biodiversity parks to protect, restore and connect habitats at a continental scale. Local people would be integrated into these parks as environmental educators, managers and rangers – a model drawn from existing large-scale conservation projects such as Area de Conservación Guanacaste (ACG) in northwestern Costa Rica.

    The backdrop for this discussion is that we are in the sixth great extinction event in earth’s history. More species are being lost today than at any time since the end of the dinosaurs. There is no mystery as to why this is happening: it is a direct result of human depredations, habitat destruction, overpopulation, resource depletion, urban sprawl and climate change.

    Wilson is one of the world’s premier natural scientists – an expert on ants, the father of island biogeography, apostle of the notion that humans share a bond with other species (biophilia) and a herald about the danger posed by extinction. On these and other matters he is also an eloquent writer, having written numerous books on biodiversity, science, and society. So when Wilson started to talk about half-Earth several years ago, people started to listen.

    As a scholar of ethics and public policy with an interest in animals and the environment, I have been following the discussion of half-Earth for some time. I like the idea and think it is feasible. Yet it suffers from a major blind spot: a human-centric view on the value of life. Wilson’s entry into this debate, and his seeming evolution on matters of ethics, is an invitation to explore how people ought to live with each other, other animals and the natural world, particularly if vast tracts are set aside for wildlife.

    The ethics of Wilson’s volte-face

    I heard Wilson speak for the first time in Washington, DC in the early 2000s. At that talk, Wilson was resigned to the inevitable loss of much of the world’s biodiversity. So he advocated a global biodiversity survey that would sample and store the world’s biotic heritage. In this way, we might still benefit from biodiversity’s genetic information in terms of biomedical research, and perhaps, someday, revive an extinct species or two.

    Not a bad idea in and of itself. Still, it was a drearily fatalistic speech, and one entirely devoid of any sense of moral responsibility to the world of nonhuman animals and nature.

    What is striking about Wilson’s argument for half-Earth is not the apparent about-face from cataloging biodiversity to restoring it. It is the moral dimension he attaches to it. In several interviews, he references the need for humanity to develop an ethic that cares about planetary life, and does not place the wants and needs of a single species (Homo sapiens sapiens) above the well-being of all other species.

    The half-Earth proposal prompts people to consider the role of humans in nature. jene/flickr, CC BY-NC-ND

    To my ear, this sounds great, but I am not exactly sure how far it goes. In the past, Wilson’s discussions of conservation ethics appear to me clearly anthropocentric. They espouse the notion that we are exceptional creatures at the apex of evolution, the sole species that has intrinsic value in and of ourselves, and thus we are to be privileged above all other species.

    In this view, we care about nature and biodiversity only because we care about ourselves. Nature is useful for us in the sense of resources and ecological services, but it has no value in and of itself. In ethics talk, people have intrinsic value while nature’s only value is what it can do for people – extrinsic value.

    For example, in his 1993 book The Biophilia Hypothesis, Wilson argues for “the necessity of a robust and richly textured anthropocentric ethics apart from the issues of rights [for other animals or ecosystems] – one based on the hereditary needs of our own species. In addition to the well-documented utilitarian potential of wild species, the diversity of life has immense aesthetic and spiritual value.”

    The passage indicates Wilson’s long-held view that biodiversity is important because of what it does for humanity, including the resources, beauty and spirituality people find in nature. It sidesteps questions of whether animals and the rest of nature have intrinsic value apart from human use.

    His evolving position, as reflected in the half-Earth proposal, seems much more in tune with what ethicist call non-anthropocentrism – that humanity is simply one marvelous but no more special outcome of evolution; that other beings, species and/or ecosystems also have intrinsic value; and that there is no reason to automatically privilege us over the rest of life.

    Consider this recent statement by Wilson:

    What kind of a species are we that we treat the rest of life so cheaply? There are those who think that’s the destiny of Earth: we arrived, we’re humanizing the Earth, and it will be the destiny of Earth for us to wipe humans out and most of the rest of biodiversity. But I think the great majority of thoughtful people consider that a morally wrong position to take, and a very dangerous one.

    The non-anthropocentric view does not deny that biodiversity and nature provide material, aesthetic and spiritual “resources.” Rather, it holds there is something more – that the community of life has value independent of the resources it provides humanity. Non-anthropocentric ethics requires, therefore, a more caring approach to people’s impact on the planet. Whether Wilson is really leaving anthropocentrism behind, time will tell. But for my part, I at least welcome his opening up possibilities to discuss less prejudicial views of animals and the rest of nature.

    The 50% solution

    It is interesting to note that half-Earth is not a new idea. In North America, the half-Earth concept first arose in the 1990s as a discussion about wilderness in the deep ecology movement. Various nonprofits that arose out of that movement continued to develop the idea, in particular the Wildlands Network, the Rewilding Institute and the Wild Foundation.

    These organizations use a mix of conservation science, education and public policy initiatives to promote protecting and restoring continental-scale habitats and corridors, all with an eye to preserving the native flora and fauna of North America. One example is ongoing work to connect the Yellowstone to Yukon ecosystems along the spine of the Rocky Mountains.

    Take it up a notch? The British Columbia Ministry of Transportation recently started to add signs warning motorists when they are likely to encounter wildlife. British Columbia Ministry of Transportation, CC BY-NC-ND

    When I was a graduate student, the term half-Earth had not yet been used, but the idea was in the air. My classmates and I referred to it as the “50% solution.” We chose this term because of the work of Reed Noss and Allen Cooperrider’s 1994 book, Savings Nature’s Legacy. Amongst other things, the book documents that, depending on the species and ecosystems in question, approximately 30% to 70% of the original habitats of the Earth would be necessary to sustain our planet’s biodiversity. So splitting the difference, we discussed the 50% solution to describe this need.

    This leads directly into my third point. The engagement of Wilson and others with the idea of half-Earth and rewilding presupposes but does not fully articulate the need for an urban vision, one where cities are ecological, sustainable and resilient. Indeed, Wilson has yet to spell out what we do with the people and infrastructure that are not devoted to maintaining and teaching about his proposed biodiversity parks. This is not a criticism, but an urgent question for ongoing and creative thinking.

    Humans are urbanizing like never before. Today, the majority of people live in cities, and by the end of the 21st century, over 90% of people will live in a metropolitan area. If we are to meet the compelling needs of human beings, we have to remake cities into sustainable and resilient “humanitats” that produce a good life.

    Such a good life is not to be measured in simple gross domestic product or consumption, but rather in well-being – freedom, true equality, housing, health, education, recreation, meaningful work, community, sustainable energy, urban farming, green infrastructure, open space in the form of parks and refuges, contact with companion and wild animals, and a culture that values and respects the natural world.

    To do all this in the context of saving half the Earth for its own sake is a tall order. Yet it is a challenge that we are up to if we have the will and ethical vision to value and coexist in a more-than-human world.

    See the full article here.

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    The Conversation US launched as a pilot project in October 2014. It is an independent source of news and views from the academic and research community, delivered direct to the public.
    Our team of professional editors work with university and research institute experts to unlock their knowledge for use by the wider public.
    Access to independent, high quality, authenticated, explanatory journalism underpins a functioning democracy. Our aim is to promote better understanding of current affairs and complex issues. And hopefully allow for a better quality of public discourse and conversation.

  • richardmitnick 7:27 am on August 21, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: 1.5 billion year old water, , , Earth Sciences, ,   

    From New Scientist: “Watery time capsule hints at how life got started on early Earth” 


    New Scientist

    20 August 2015
    Colin Barras

    The chemical reactions around hydrothermal vents at the bottom of ancient seas could have kick-started life (Image: Dr Bob Embley/NOAA PMEL)

    It has all the ingredients of a primordial soup. What’s more, the chemicals of life – discovered in a pocket of water that last saw the light of day 1.5 billion years ago – appear to have formed without any influence from biological processes.

    That means the idea that life got started as a result of chemical reactions around deep-sea vents looks more likely.

    Barbara Sherwood Lollar at the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada, and her team discovered the water a few years ago oozing from rocky fractures 2 kilometres below the surface at the Kidd mine near Timmins in Ontario. The water, which is about 1.5 billion years old, appears to show no signs of life – an extremely rare find .

    The rocks are the ancient remains of hydrothermal vents formed at the bottom of Earth’s early oceans, and that means the water they contain could reveal important details about the chemistry that might have occurred at such vents before life began exerting its influence.

    Hot, chemical-laced water gushes out of deep-sea hydrothermal vents – conditions that in theory would be ideal for the origin of life.

    But it is a difficult idea to test. “The chemistry is often heavily overprinted by life,” Sherwood Lollar says.

    Her team has previously found a wealth of complex organic molecules in the water.

    Now her colleague, Christopher Glein, has performed a raft of calculations to show that all of those molecules could have formed through perfectly feasible abiotic chemical reactions in the conditions found in such ancient hydrothermal vents.

    His calculations show the conditions were particularly favourable for the formation of some key chemicals, including glyceraldehyde, one of the precursors of RNA and DNA, and pyruvate, which is important for cell metabolism.

    Traditionally, biochemists have considered these molecules to be relatively hard to generate abiotically, says Glein who presented his findings at the Goldschmidt conference in Prague this week. “But that’s assuming they are being synthesised under familiar conditions at Earth’s surface,” he says.

    Conditions are very different in the ancient hydrothermal vents, they found. The water there has reacted with the rock through a process called serpentinisation to create an environment poor in oxygen but rich in hydrogen, iron and sulphur. Combined with temperatures of about 100 °C – also found there – many complex organic compounds can easily form.

    Sample of serpentinite from the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, California, USA

    William Martin at the University of Düsseldorf, Germany, says hydrothermal vents would have allowed for even more complex things to form. “I say that hydrocarbon synthesis at serpentinising systems is enough to make even the first membranes,” he says.

    Glein emphasises that the water pockets in Kidd mine, while ancient, are not as old as life on Earth itself.

    “We’re not claiming that Kidd actually contains the original prebiotic soup, or a second origin of life,” he says – but it’s a useful system for understanding the kind of hydrothermal chemistry that might have helped kick-start life about 4 billion years ago. “While not the first brand of prebiotic soup, it’s a variety that can potentially provide new clues about the origin of life.”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 7:57 am on March 16, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From AAAS: “Alaska’s ponds are disappearing” 



    13 March 2015
    Carolyn Gramling

    Image courtesy of Christian Andresen/UTEP

    Thousands of ponds are scattered like mirrors across Alaska’s coastal plain, providing nesting and feeding grounds for waterfowl. The bodies of water, each less than a hectare in area, fill depressions in the hummocky tundra landscape with meltwater from thawing permafrost. How the surface hydrology of Arctic permafrost regions—a key part of the Arctic carbon cycle—will transform in a changing climate isn’t well understood, but tundra ponds may be a powerful guide, because they are closely tied to changes in precipitation and temperature, scientists report in a study published online before print in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Biogeosciences.

    To gauge how the ponds have changed in the past 65 years, the researchers put high-resolution aerial photos taken across Alaska’s Barrow Peninsula in 1948 (at left) side-by-side with modern satellite images from 2002, 2008, and 2010 (at right). They also used pond data collected during the International Biological Program in the 1970s, including areal extent estimates, water depths, and pond depths, and compared those with field data collected from 2011 to 2013. In all, they found, the number of ponds had shrunk by at least 17% since 1948 and had overall shrunk in size by about 30%. Several factors influenced the change—as temperatures rise, evaporation increases, and rainfall isn’t keeping pace. But warmer temperatures, longer growing seasons, and thawing permafrost (which supplies nutrients) are also promoting the growth of aquatic plants in the ponds, shrinking the size of the basins.

    See the full article here.

    The American Association for the Advancement of Science is an international non-profit organization dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of all people.

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  • richardmitnick 9:08 pm on January 2, 2015 Permalink | Reply
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    From NASA Earth: “The Forests of Mulanje” 

    NASA Earth Observatory

    NASA Earth Observatory

    In southern Malawi, near the border with Mozambique, the land rises sharply into a multi-lobed plateau that towers about 1,400 meters (4,600 feet) above the landscape. The feature, an inselberg known as Mulanje massif, is the highest point in south-central Africa.

    Mulanje massif

    Mount Mulanje

    Location of Mount Mulanje in Malawi

    The rock that makes up Mulanje formed some 130 million years ago, when underground magma slowly cooled into vast lobes of granite and syenite. Over time, tectonic forces pushed these erosion-resistant rocks upward. As softer rock above and around the granite and syenite eroded away, Mulanje was left behind. Today, about twenty rocky peaks are found on the plateau.

    The Operational Land Imager (OLI) on Landsat 8 captured [the above] natural-color image of Mulanje on October 10, 2014. Since the image was acquired during the dry season, browns and reds dominate the lower-elevation areas surrounding the plateau. Dry grassland, shrubland, and farmland appears tan; it normally greens up during the wet season. Areas with exposed soil have a red-orange hue. The bright green areas south and west of Mulanje are tea and macadamia farms.

    While the lowlands get most of their rain during the wet season, the plateau sees rain year round. Vegetation type varies with elevation. Mulanje’s lower slopes are mainly miombo woodlands. The mid-elevation and upper slopes, as well as many of the ravines, are home to afromontane forests, which have a darker green color. A few scattered groves of endangered Mulanje cypress (Widdringtonia whytei)—Malawi’s national tree—survive in certain valleys. Tussock grasslands and heath dominate the highest-elevation parts of the plateau. Large outcrops of exposed rock appear gray.

    Although conservation groups have attempted to protect Mulanje’s forests, satellite observations show that deforestation has chewed away at the perimeter of many of them over the last decade. The lowlands surrounding Mulanje are densely populated, and people regularly harvest wood for cooking and heating, explained Joy Hecht, an environmental economist and consultant.

    A wildfire is visible on the plateau in the Landsat image. “Fires are frequent and a bad sign, often set by illegal loggers,” said Hecht, who has conducted field research on Mulanje. “The mountain top is a protected forest, and there would not be prescribed burns there.” Other common causes of wildfires on Mulanje include hunting, charcoal production, escaped campfires, and arson.

    See the full article here.

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    The Earth Observatory’s mission is to share with the public the images, stories, and discoveries about climate and the environment that emerge from NASA research, including its satellite missions, in-the-field research, and climate models. The Earth Observatory staff is supported by the Climate and Radiation Laboratory, and the Hydrospheric and Biospheric Sciences Laboratory located at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

  • richardmitnick 8:32 pm on December 30, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Earth Sciences,   

    From JPL: “Technology Innovations Spin NASA’s SMAP into Space” 


    December 30, 2014
    Carol Rasmussen
    NASA Earth Science News Team

    Scheduled for launch on Jan. 29, 2015, NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) instrument will measure the moisture lodged in Earth’s soils with an unprecedented accuracy and resolution. The instrument’s three main parts are a radar, a radiometer and the largest rotating mesh antenna ever deployed in space.


    Remote sensing instruments are called “active” when they emit their own signals and “passive” when they record signals that already exist. The mission’s science instrument ropes together a sensor of each type to corral the highest-resolution, most accurate measurements ever made of soil moisture — a tiny fraction of Earth’s water that has a disproportionately large effect on weather and agriculture.

    To enable the mission to meet its accuracy needs while covering the globe every three days or less, SMAP engineers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, designed and built the largest rotating antenna that could be stowed into a space of only one foot by four feet (30 by 120 centimeters) for launch. The dish is 19.7 feet (6 meters) in diameter.

    “We call it the spinning lasso,” said Wendy Edelstein of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, the SMAP instrument manager. Like the cowboy’s lariat, the antenna is attached on one side to an arm with a crook in its elbow. It spins around the arm at about 14 revolutions per minute (one complete rotation every four seconds). The antenna dish was provided by Northrop Grumman Astro Aerospace in Carpinteria, California. The motor that spins the antenna was provided by the Boeing Company in El Segundo, California.

    “The antenna caused us a lot of angst, no doubt about it,” Edelstein noted. Although the antenna must fit during launch into a space not much bigger than a tall kitchen trash can, it must unfold so precisely that the surface shape of the mesh is accurate within about an eighth of an inch (a few millimeters).

    The mesh dish is edged with a ring of lightweight graphite supports that stretch apart like a baby gate when a single cable is pulled, drawing the mesh outward. “Making sure we don’t have snags, that the mesh doesn’t hang up on the supports and tear when it’s deploying — all of that requires very careful engineering,” Edelstein said. “We test, and we test, and we test some more. We have a very stable and robust system now.”

    SMAP’s radar, developed and built at JPL, uses the antenna to transmit microwaves toward Earth and receive the signals that bounce back, called backscatter. The microwaves penetrate a few inches or more into the soil before they rebound. Changes in the electrical properties of the returning microwaves indicate changes in soil moisture, and also tell whether or not the soil is frozen. Using a complex technique called synthetic aperture radar processing, the radar can produce ultra-sharp images with a resolution of about half a mile to a mile and a half (one to three kilometers).

    SMAP’s radiometer detects differences in Earth’s natural emissions of microwaves that are caused by water in soil. To address a problem that has seriously hampered earlier missions using this kind of instrument to study soil moisture, the radiometer designers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Maryland, developed and built one of the most sophisticated signal-processing systems ever created for such a scientific instrument.

    The problem is radio frequency interference. The microwave wavelengths that SMAP uses are officially reserved for scientific use, but signals at nearby wavelengths that are used for air traffic control, cell phones and other purposes spill over into SMAP’s wavelengths unpredictably. Conventional signal processing averages data over a long time period, which means that even a short burst of interference skews the record for that whole period. The Goddard engineers devised a new way to delete only the small segments of actual interference, leaving much more of the observations untouched.

    Combining the radar and radiometer signals allows scientists to take advantage of the strengths of both technologies while working around their weaknesses. “The radiometer provides more accurate soil moisture but a coarse resolution of about 40 kilometers [25 miles] across,” said JPL’s Eni Njoku, a research scientist with SMAP. “With the radar, you can create very high resolution, but it’s less accurate. To get both an accurate and a high-resolution measurement, we process the two signals together.”

    SMAP will be the fifth NASA Earth science mission launched within the last 12 months.

    For more about the SMAP mission, visit:


    NASA monitors Earth’s vital signs from space, air and land with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records and computer analysis tools to better see how our planet is changing. The agency shares this unique knowledge with the global community and works with institutions in the United States and around the world that contribute to understanding and protecting our home planet.

    For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities this year, visit:


    See the full article here.

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    NASA JPL Campus

    Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is a federally funded research and development center and NASA field center located in the San Gabriel Valley area of Los Angeles County, California, United States. Although the facility has a Pasadena postal address, it is actually headquartered in the city of La Cañada Flintridge [1], on the northwest border of Pasadena. JPL is managed by the nearby California Institute of Technology (Caltech) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The Laboratory’s primary function is the construction and operation of robotic planetary spacecraft, though it also conducts Earth-orbit and astronomy missions. It is also responsible for operating NASA’s Deep Space Network.

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  • richardmitnick 4:10 pm on December 26, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Earth Sciences,   

    From NASA Earth Observatory: “What Lies Below” 

    NASA Earth Observatory

    NASA Earth Observatory

    During the Southern Hemisphere’s summer season, the South Pole bustles with science activity, from cosmic observations to seismic and atmospheric studies. This year, researchers are taking a close look at what lies below.


    The image above shows a slice through almost 3 kilometers (1.9 miles) of ice spanning a few hundred kilometers on each side of the South Pole. (Note that the horizontal scale differs from the vertical scale.) From this perspective, ice would be flowing into the page, or away from you.

    Over many years, snow that fell at the surface has been compressed and transformed into successive layers of ice. The process continues and layers become further compressed under the tremendous weight of the ice sheet. The ice that makes up a single layer is a uniform age and contains information about the composition of the atmosphere at the time that the snow initially fell.

    Radar instruments on aircraft can detect these layers by transmitting microwave signals and recording the magnitude of the echoes returned to the instrument. The method works because the strength of the echo varies depending on factors such as density and the amount of impurities in each layer.

    In the radar image above, the stratigraphy (layers) appears misshapen in places, possibly caused by drag over rough bedrock “upstream” or from irregular ice flow. Orange lines highlight the part of the bedrock where the data are faint. White lines on either side of the South Pole are reflections from buildings at the surface.

    These radar data were collected during an airborne campaign in December 1998 led by the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG). For two successive seasons, scientists with the Pensacola-Pole Transect campaign surveyed from the Ross Ice Shelf, southward over the Transantarctic mountains between the Scott and Reedy Glaciers, and over the South Pole. This particular scene was collected over the course of two days.

    Map of Antarctica with the Ross ice shelf marked with a red X.

    Crevasse, Ross Ice Shelf in 2001

    According to Don Blankenship, whose UTIG team collected the data and later prepared this image, “this is one of the few and possibly the most recent image of this particular transect through the South Pole.” There has not yet been a scientific need to collect newer imagery across a such a large swath of the region.

    The view recently proved useful for scientists choosing a site for the drilling and recovery of a new ice core. Scientists began drilling in early December 2014, and when completed in 2016 the core will be the deepest yet recovered from near the South Pole. Scientists aim to drill down 1,500 meters (4,900 feet) to where the ice is about 40,000 years old. Analysis of the layers will provide a detailed history of the climate and environment in a unique area of the continent where moist air from the west meets cold, dry air from the east.

    According to NASA cryospheric scientist Tom Neumann: “The low temperature and relatively high accumulation rate here could give us an excellent record of the chemistry of the polar atmosphere over the last 40,000 years.”

    References and Further Reading
    Casey, K.A. et al., (2014) The 1500 m South Pole ice core: recovering a 40 ka environmental record. Annals of Glaciology 55 (68), 137-146.
    South Pole Ice Core (2014) Overview. Accessed December 22, 2014.
    National Snow & Ice Data Center (2014) <em>What is a glacier? Accessed December 22, 2014.
    University of Copenhagen Centre for Ice and Climate (2014) Ice core impurities Accessed December 22, 2014.

    Images courtesy of Don Blankenship and Marie Cavitte, University of Texas Institute for Geophysics (UTIG), based on work funded by the National Science Foundation. Caption by Kathryn Hansen.

    See the full article here.

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    The Earth Observatory’s mission is to share with the public the images, stories, and discoveries about climate and the environment that emerge from NASA research, including its satellite missions, in-the-field research, and climate models. The Earth Observatory staff is supported by the Climate and Radiation Laboratory, and the Hydrospheric and Biospheric Sciences Laboratory located at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center.

  • richardmitnick 8:29 pm on December 19, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Earth Sciences, ,   

    From NSF- “Geomagnetic reversal: Understanding ancient flips and flops in Earth’s polarity” 

    National Science Foundation

    December 19, 2014
    Ivy F. Kupec, (703) 292-8796 ikupec@nsf.gov

    Masako Tominaga
    Maurice Tivey
    William Sager

    Related Institutions/Organizations
    Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

    Western Pacific Seafloor , Hawaii

    Related Programs
    Marine Geology and Geophysics

    Imagine one day you woke up, and the North Pole was suddenly the South Pole.

    This geomagnetic reversal would cause your hiking compass to seem impossibly backwards. However, within our planet’s history, scientists know that this kind of thing actually has happened…not suddenly and not within human time scales, but the polarity of the planet has in fact reversed, which has caused scientists to wonder not only how it’s happened, but why.

    This week, as the National Science Foundation (NSF) research vessel R/V Sikuliaq continues its journey towards its home port in University of Alaska Fairbanks’ Marine Center in Seward, Alaska, she detours for approximately 35 days as researchers take advantage of her close proximity to the western Pacific Ocean’s volcanic sea floors. With the help of three types of magnetometers, they will unlock more of our planet’s geomagnetic history that has been captured in our Earth’s crust there.

    Before leaving port, an undergraduate student acquires important control data with a gravitometer.

    “The geomagnetic field is one of the major physical properties of planet Earth, and it is a very dynamic property that can change from milliseconds to millions of years. It is always, always changing,” said the expedition’s chief scientist, Masako Tominaga, an NSF-funded marine geophysicist from Michigan State University. “Earth’s geomagnetic field is a shield, for example. It protects us from magnetic storms–bursts from the sun–so very pervasive cosmic rays don’t harm us. Our research will provide data to understand how changes in the geomagnetic field have occurred over time and give us very important clues to understand the planet Earth as a whole.”

    Flipping and flopping

    Reportedly, the last time, a geomagnetic reversal occurred was 780,000 years ago, known as the Brunhes-Matuyama reversal. Bernard Brunhes and Motonori Matuyama were the geophysicists who identified that reversal in 1906.

    A supercomputer to model flow patterns in Earth’s liquid core.
    Dr. Gary A. GlatzmaierLos Alamos National LaboratoryU.S. Department of Energy.

    Researchers Tominaga, Maurice Tivey (from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) and William Sager (from University of Houston) have an interest that goes further back in history to the Jurassic period, 145-200 million years ago when a curious anomaly occurred. Scientists originally thought that during this time period, no geomagnetic reversals had happened at all. However, data–like the kind that Tominaga’s team will be collecting–revealed that in fact, the time period was full of reversals that occurred much more quickly.

    “We came to the conclusion that it was actually ‘flipping flopping,’ but so fast that it did not regain the full strength of the geomagnetic field of Earth like today’s strength. That’s why it was super, super low,” Tominaga explained. “The Jurassic period is very distinctive. We think that understanding this part of the geomagnetic field’s behavior can provide important clues for computer simulation where researchers have been trying to characterize this flipping and flopping. Our data could help predict future times when we might see this flipping flopping again.”

    Interestingly, historical records have shown points where the flipping seems likely to occur but then seems to change its mind, almost like a tease, where it returns to its original state. Those instances actually do occur on a shorter time scale than the full-fledged flipping and flopping. Again, scientists are looking for answers on why they occur as well.

    Better tools equal better data

    For approximately three decades, researchers like Tominaga have been probing this area of the western Pacific seafloor. With her cruise on R/V Sikuliaq, Tominaga and Tivey come with even more technology in hand.

    Thirty years ago, researchers didn’t have access to autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) that could go to deeper, harder-to-reach ocean areas. However, that is just one of three ways Tominaga’s team will deploy three magnetometers during its time at sea. One magnetometer will work from aboard R/V Sikuliaq. Another will trail behind the ship, and the third will be part of the AUV.

    “The seafloor spreading at mid-ocean ridge occurred because of volcanic eruption over time. And when this molten lava formed the seafloor, it actually recorded ambient geomagnetic data. So when you go from the very young ocean seafloor right next to the mid-ocean ridge to very, very old seafloor away from the mid-ocean ridge, a magnetometer basically unveils changes in the geomagnetic field for us,” Tominaga said. “The closer we can get to the seafloor, the better the signal. That’s the rule of thumb for geophysics.”

    With the help of R/V Sikuliaq’s ship’s crew, Tominaga and Tivey, a cruise archivist who is also a computer engineer/scientist, and seven students (three of whom are undergraduates), the team will run daily operations 24 hours a day/seven days a week, deploying the magnetometers, collecting data and then moving on to the next site.

    Naturally, the weather can waylay even the best plans. “Our goal is always about the science, but the road likely will be winding,” Tominaga said. “The most enjoyable part of this work is to be able to work together with this extremely diverse group of people. The Sikuliaq crew, the folks at UAF and those connected to the ship from NSF have all been committed to seeing this research happen, which is incredibly gratifying…. When we make things happen together as a team, it is really rewarding.”

    Focus on fundamentals

    Not surprisingly, this kind of oceanographic research is among some of the most fundamental, serving as a foundation for other research where it might correlate or illuminate. Additionally, because the causes and impacts of these geomagnetic changes are unknown, connections to currents, weather patterns, and other geologic phenomenon can still be explored also.

    “NSF, along with the entire science community, has waited years for this unique state-of-the-art Arctic vessel, and the timing couldn’t be more critical,” said Rose DuFour, NSF program director. “Our hope is to use R/V Sikuliaq to help carry out the abundant arctic-based seagoing science missions that go beyond NSF-funded science and extend to those from other federal agencies, like Office of Naval Research as well.”

    Tominaga notes that another key part to the cruise’s mission is record keeping; it’s why an archivist is part of her team. He even will blog daily (with pictures). As foundational research, it’s important to “keep every single record intact,” and she believes this broadcasting daily narrative will assist in this effort. Additionally, the plan is to share the collected data as soon as possible with other researchers who can benefit from it as well. “Without going there, getting real data–providing ground truth–how do we know what is going on?” Tominaga said, explaining fieldwork’s importance.

    Tominaga is quite clear on what prompts her to keep one of the busiest fieldwork schedules, even during a season usually reserved for family and friends, sipping eggnog or champagne. “I was raised as a scientist/marine geophysicist, and I don’t just mean academically,” she said. “I really looked up to my mentors and friends and how they handed down what they know-so unselfishly. And when I was finishing my Ph.D., I realized that there will be a time I will hand down these things to the next generation. Now, as a professor at Michigan State University, I’m the one who has to pass the torch, if you will–knowledge, experience, and skills at sea. That’s what drives me.”

    See the full article here.

    Please help promote STEM in your local schools.
    STEM Icon

    Stem Education Coalition

    The National Science Foundation (NSF) is an independent federal agency created by Congress in 1950 “to promote the progress of science; to advance the national health, prosperity, and welfare; to secure the national defense…we are the funding source for approximately 24 percent of all federally supported basic research conducted by America’s colleges and universities. In many fields such as mathematics, computer science and the social sciences, NSF is the major source of federal backing.


  • richardmitnick 2:29 pm on August 22, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Earth Sciences,   

    From NASA: “Ozone-Depleting Compound Persists, NASA Research Shows “ 



    August 20, 2014
    Steve Cole
    Headquarters, Washington

    Kathryn Hansen
    Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt, Md.

    NASA research shows Earth’s atmosphere contains an unexpectedly large amount of an ozone-depleting compound from an unknown source decades after the compound was banned worldwide.

    Satellites observed the largest ozone hole over Antarctica in 2006. Purple and blue represent areas of low ozone concentrations in the atmosphere; yellow and red are areas of higher concentrations. Image Credit: NASA

    Carbon tetrachloride (CCl4), which was once used in applications such as dry cleaning and as a fire-extinguishing agent, was regulated in 1987 under the Montreal Protocol along with other chlorofluorocarbons that destroy ozone and contribute to the ozone hole over Antarctica. Parties to the Montreal Protocol reported zero new CCl4 emissions between 2007-2012.

    However, the new research shows worldwide emissions of CCl4 average 39 kilotons per year, approximately 30 percent of peak emissions prior to the international treaty going into effect.

    “We are not supposed to be seeing this at all,” said Qing Liang, an atmospheric scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and lead author of the study. “It is now apparent there are either unidentified industrial leakages, large emissions from contaminated sites, or unknown CCl4 sources.”

    As of 2008, CCl4 accounted for about 11 percent of chlorine available for ozone depletion, which is not enough to alter the decreasing trend of ozone-depleting substances. Still, scientists and regulators want to know the source of the unexplained emissions.

    For almost a decade, scientists have debated why the observed levels of CCl4 in the atmosphere have declined slower than expectations, which are based on what is known about how the compound is destroyed by solar radiation and other natural processes.

    “Is there a physical CCl4 loss process we don’t understand, or are there emission sources that go unreported or are not identified?” Liang said.

    With zero CCl4 emissions reported between 2007-2012, atmospheric concentrations of the compound should have declined at an expected rate of 4 percent per year. Observations from the ground showed atmospheric concentrations were only declining by 1 percent per year.

    To investigate the discrepancy, Liang and colleagues used NASA’s 3-D GEOS Chemistry Climate Model and data from global networks of ground-based observations. The CCl4 measurements used in the study were made by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) Earth System Research Laboratory and NOAA’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences at the University of Colorado, Boulder.

    Model simulations of global atmospheric chemistry and the losses of CCl4 due to interactions with soil and the oceans pointed to an unidentified ongoing current source of CCl4. The results produced the first quantitative estimate of average global CCl4 emissions from 2000-2012.

    In addition to unexplained sources of CCl4, the model results showed the chemical stays in the atmosphere 40 percent longer than previously thought. The research was published online in the Aug. 18 issue of Geophysical Research Letters.

    “People believe the emissions of ozone-depleting substances have stopped because of the Montreal Protocol,” said Paul Newman, chief scientist for atmospheres at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and a co-author of the study. “Unfortunately, there is still a major source of CCl4 out in the world.”

    NASA monitors Earth’s vital signs from land, air and space with a fleet of satellites and ambitious airborne and ground-based observation campaigns. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records and computer analysis tools to better see how our planet is changing. The agency shares this unique knowledge with the global community and works with institutions in the United States and around the world that contribute to understanding and protecting our home planet.

    See the full article, with video, here.

    The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is the agency of the United States government that is responsible for the nation’s civilian space program and for aeronautics and aerospace research.

    President Dwight D. Eisenhower established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1958 with a distinctly civilian (rather than military) orientation encouraging peaceful applications in space science. The National Aeronautics and Space Act was passed on July 29, 1958, disestablishing NASA’s predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). The new agency became operational on October 1, 1958.

    Since that time, most U.S. space exploration efforts have been led by NASA, including the Apollo moon-landing missions, the Skylab space station, and later the Space Shuttle. Currently, NASA is supporting the International Space Station and is overseeing the development of the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Commercial Crew vehicles. The agency is also responsible for the Launch Services Program (LSP) which provides oversight of launch operations and countdown management for unmanned NASA launches. Most recently, NASA announced a new Space Launch System that it said would take the agency’s astronauts farther into space than ever before and lay the cornerstone for future human space exploration efforts by the U.S.

    NASA science is focused on better understanding Earth through the Earth Observing System, advancing heliophysics through the efforts of the Science Mission Directorate’s Heliophysics Research Program, exploring bodies throughout the Solar System with advanced robotic missions such as New Horizons, and researching astrophysics topics, such as the Big Bang, through the Great Observatories [Hubble,
    Chandra, Spitzer ]and associated programs. NASA shares data with various national and international organizations such as from the Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

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  • richardmitnick 2:02 pm on July 30, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Earth Sciences, ,   

    From SPACE.com: “Early Earth: A Battered, Hellish World with Water Oases for Life “ 

    space-dot-com logo

    July 30, 2014
    Charles Q. Choi

    Asteroids and comets that repeatedly smashed into the early Earth covered the planet’s surface with molten rock during its earliest days, but still may have left oases of water that could have supported the evolution of life, scientists say.

    The new study reveals that during the planet’s infancy, the surface of the Earth was a hellish environment, but perhaps not as hellish as often thought, scientists added.

    Earth formed about 4.5 billion years ago. The first 500 million years of its life are known as the Hadean Eon. Although this time amounts to more than 10 percent of Earth’s history, little is known about it, since few rocks are known that are older than 3.8 billion years old.

    early earth
    depiction of possible early planet Earth

    Earth’s violent youth

    For much of the Hadean, Earth and its sister worlds in the inner solar system were pummeled with an extraordinary number of cosmic impacts.

    “It was thought that because of these asteroids and comets flying around colliding with Earth, conditions on early Earth may have been hellish,” said lead study author Simone Marchi, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. This imagined hellishness gave the eon its name — Hadean comes from Hades, the lord of the underworld in Greek mythology.

    However, in the past dozen years or so, a radically different picture of the Hadean began to emerge. Analysis of minerals trapped within microscopic zircon crystals dating from this eon “suggested there was liquid water on the surface of the Earth back then, clashing with the previous picture that the Hadean was hellish,” Marchi said. This could explain why the evidence of the earliest life on Earth appears during the Hadean — maybe the planet was less inhospitable during that eon than previously thought.

    Cosmic bombardment history

    The exact timing and magnitude of the impacts that smashed Earth during the Hadean are unknown. To get an idea of the effects of this bombardment, Marchi and his colleagues looked at the moon, whose heavily cratered surface helped model the battering that its close neighbor Earth must have experienced back then.

    “We also looked at highly siderophile elements (elements that bind tightly to iron), such as gold, delivered to Earth as a result of these early collisions, and the amounts of these elements tells us the total mass accreted by Earth as the result of these collisions,” Marchi said. Prior research suggests these impacts probably contributed less than 0.5 percent of the Earth’s present-day mass.

    The researchers discovered that “the surface of the Earth during the Hadean was heavily affected by very large collisions, by impactors larger than 100 kilometers (60 miles) or so — really, really big impactors,” Marchi said. “When Earth has a collision with an object that big, that melts a large volume of the Earth’s crust and mantle, covering a large fraction of the surface,” Marchi added.

    These findings suggest that Earth’s surface was buried over and over again by large volumes of molten rock — enough to cover the surface of the Earth several times. This helps explain why so few rocks survive from the Hadean, the researchers said.

    However, although these findings might suggest that the Hadean was a hellish eon, the researchers found that “there were time gaps between these large collisions,” Marchi said. “Generally speaking, there may have been something on the order of 20 or 30 impactors larger than 200 km (120 miles) across during the 500 million years of the Hadean, so the time between such impactors was relatively long,” Marchi said.

    Any water vaporized near these impacts “would rain down again,” Marchi said, and “there may have been quiet tranquil times between collisions — there could have been liquid water on the surface.”

    The researchers suggested that life emerging during the Hadean was probably resistant to the high temperatures of the time. Marchi and his colleagues detailed their findings in the July 31 issue of the journal Nature.

    See the full article, with video, here.

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  • richardmitnick 3:45 pm on June 16, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Earth Sciences,   

    Fro Brookhaven Lab: “New Evidence for Oceans of Water Deep in the Earth” 

    Brookhaven Lab

    June 13, 2014
    Karen McNulty Walsh, (631) 344-8350 or Peter Genzer, (631) 344-3174printer iconPrint

    Water bound in mantle rock alters our view of the Earth’s composition

    Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of New Mexico report evidence for potentially oceans worth of water deep beneath the United States. Though not in the familiar liquid form — the ingredients for water are bound up in rock deep in the Earth’s mantle — the discovery may represent the planet’s largest water reservoir.

    Structure of the Earth

    The presence of liquid water on the surface is what makes our “blue planet” habitable, and scientists have long been trying to figure out just how much water may be cycling between Earth’s surface and interior reservoirs through plate tectonics.

    Northwestern geophysicist Steve Jacobsen and University of New Mexico seismologist Brandon Schmandt have found deep pockets of magma located about 400 miles beneath North America, a likely signature of the presence of water at these depths. The discovery suggests water from the Earth’s surface can be driven to such great depths by plate tectonics, eventually causing partial melting of the rocks found deep in the mantle.

    The findings, to be published June 13 in the journal Science, will aid scientists in understanding how the Earth formed, what its current composition and inner workings are and how much water is trapped in mantle rock.

    “Geological processes on the Earth’s surface, such as earthquakes or erupting volcanoes, are an expression of what is going on inside the Earth, out of our sight,” said Jacobsen, a co-author of the paper. “I think we are finally seeing evidence for a whole-Earth water cycle, which may help explain the vast amount of liquid water on the surface of our habitable planet. Scientists have been looking for this missing deep water for decades.”

    A blue crystal of ringwoodite containing around one percent of H2O in its crystal structure is compressed to conditions of 700 km depth inside a diamond-anvil cell. Using a laser to heat the sample to temperatures over 1500C (orange spots), the ringwoodite transformed to minerals found in the lowermost mantle. Synchrotron-infrared spectra collected on beamline U2A at the NSLS reveal changes in the OH-absorption spectra that correspond to melt generation, which was also detected by seismic waves underneath most of North America.

    Scientists have long speculated that water is trapped in a rocky layer of the Earth’s mantle located between the lower mantle and upper mantle, at depths between 250 miles and 410 miles. Jacobsen and Schmandt are the first to provide direct evidence that there may be water in this area of the mantle, known as the “transition zone,” on a regional scale. The region extends across most of the interior of the United States.

    Schmandt, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of New Mexico, uses seismic waves from earthquakes to investigate the structure of the deep crust and mantle. Jacobsen, an associate professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, uses observations in the laboratory to make predictions about geophysical processes occurring far beyond our direct observation.

    The study combined Jacobsen’s lab experiments in which he studies mantle rock under the simulated high pressures of 400 miles below the Earth’s surface with Schmandt’s observations using vast amounts of seismic data from the USArray, a dense network of more than 2,000 seismometers across the United States.

    Jacobsen’s and Schmandt’s findings converged to produce evidence that melting may occur about 400 miles deep in the Earth. H2O stored in mantle rocks, such as those containing the mineral ringwoodite, likely is the key to the process, the researchers said.

    “Melting of rock at this depth is remarkable because most melting in the mantle occurs much shallower, in the upper 50 miles,” said Schmandt, a co-author of the paper. “If there is a substantial amount of H2O in the transition zone, then some melting should take place in areas where there is flow into the lower mantle, and that is consistent with what we found.”

    If just one percent of the weight of mantle rock located in the transition zone is H2O, that would be equivalent to nearly three times the amount of water in our oceans, the researchers said.

    This water is not in a form familiar to us — it is not liquid, ice or vapor. This fourth form is water trapped inside the molecular structure of the minerals in the mantle rock. The weight of 250 miles of solid rock creates such high pressure, along with temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, that a water molecule splits to form a hydroxyl radical (OH), which can be bound into a mineral’s crystal structure.

    Schmandt and Jacobsen’s findings build on a discovery reported in March in the journal Nature in which scientists discovered a piece of the mineral ringwoodite inside a diamond brought up from a depth of 400 miles by a volcano in Brazil. That tiny piece of ringwoodite — the only sample in existence from within the Earth — contained a surprising amount of water bound in solid form in the mineral.

    “Whether or not this unique sample is representative of the Earth’s interior composition is not known, however,” Jacobsen said. “Now we have found evidence for extensive melting beneath North America at the same depths corresponding to the dehydration of ringwoodite, which is exactly what has been happening in my experiments.”

    For years, Jacobsen has been synthesizing ringwoodite, colored sapphire-like blue, in his Northwestern lab by reacting the green mineral olivine with water at high-pressure conditions. (The Earth’s upper mantle is rich in olivine.) He found that more than one percent of the weight of the ringwoodite’s crystal structure can consist of water — roughly the same amount of water as was found in the sample reported in the Nature paper.

    “The ringwoodite is like a sponge, soaking up water,” Jacobsen said. “There is something very special about the crystal structure of ringwoodite that allows it to attract hydrogen and trap water. This mineral can contain a lot of water under conditions of the deep mantle.”

    For the study reported in Science, Jacobsen subjected his synthesized ringwoodite to conditions around 400 miles below the Earth’s surface and found it forms small amounts of partial melt when pushed to these conditions. He detected the melt in experiments conducted at the Advanced Photon Source of Argonne National Laboratory and at the National Synchrotron Light Source of Brookhaven National Laboratory.

    Jacobsen uses small gem diamonds as hard anvils to compress minerals to deep-Earth conditions. “Because the diamond windows are transparent, we can look into the high-pressure device and watch reactions occurring at conditions of the deep mantle,” he said. “We used intense beams of X-rays, electrons and infrared light to study the chemical reactions taking place in the diamond cell.”

    Jacobsen’s findings produced the same evidence of partial melt, or magma, that Schmandt detected beneath North America using seismic waves. Because the deep mantle is beyond the direct observation of scientists, they use seismic waves — sound waves at different speeds — to image the interior of the Earth.

    “Seismic data from the USArray are giving us a clearer picture than ever before of the Earth’s internal structure beneath North America,” Schmandt said. “The melting we see appears to be driven by subduction — the downwelling of mantle material from the surface.”

    The melting the researchers have detected is called dehydration melting. Rocks in the transition zone can hold a lot of H2O, but rocks in the top of the lower mantle can hold almost none. The water contained within ringwoodite in the transition zone is forced out when it goes deeper (into the lower mantle) and forms a higher-pressure mineral called silicate perovskite, which cannot absorb the water. This causes the rock at the boundary between the transition zone and lower mantle to partially melt.

    “When a rock with a lot of H2O moves from the transition zone to the lower mantle it needs to get rid of the H2O somehow, so it melts a little bit,” Schmandt said. “This is called dehydration melting.”

    “Once the water is released, much of it may become trapped there in the transition zone,” Jacobsen added.

    Just a little bit of melt, about one percent, is detectible with the new array of seismometers aimed at this region of the mantle because the melt slows the speed of seismic waves, Schmandt said.

    The USArray is part of EarthScope, a program of the National Science Foundation that deploys thousands of seismic, GPS and other geophysical instruments to study the structure and evolution of the North American continent and the processes the cause earthquakes and volcanic eruptions.

    The National Science Foundation (grants EAR-0748797 and EAR-1215720) and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation supported the research.

    The paper is titled Dehydration melting at the top of the lower mantle. In addition to Jacobsen and Schmandt, other authors of the paper are Thorsten W. Becker, University of California, Los Angeles; Zhenxian Liu, Carnegie Institution of Washington; and Kenneth G. Dueker, the University of Wyoming

    See the full article here.

    One of ten national laboratories overseen and primarily funded by the Office of Science of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Brookhaven National Laboratory conducts research in the physical, biomedical, and environmental sciences, as well as in energy technologies and national security. Brookhaven Lab also builds and operates major scientific facilities available to university, industry and government researchers. The Laboratory’s almost 3,000 scientists, engineers, and support staff are joined each year by more than 5,000 visiting researchers from around the world.Brookhaven is operated and managed for DOE’s Office of Science by Brookhaven Science Associates, a limited-liability company founded by Stony Brook University, the largest academic user of Laboratory facilities, and Battelle, a nonprofit, applied science and technology organization.

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