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  • richardmitnick 4:40 pm on June 24, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "The Interiors of Exoplanets May Well Hold the Key to Their Habitability", , , “The heart of habitability is in planetary interiors” concluded Carnegie geochemist George Cody, , Cosmochemistry, , Deep Carbon Observatory’s Biology Meets Subduction project, Findings from the Curiosity rover that high levels of the gas methane had recently been detected on Mars., Geochemistry, , PREM-Preliminary Reference Earth Model, This idea that subsurface life on distant planets could be identified by their byproducts in the atmosphere has just taken on a new immediacy, We’ve only understood the Earth’s structure for the past hundred years.   

    From Many Worlds: “The Interiors of Exoplanets May Well Hold the Key to Their Habitability” 

    NASA NExSS bloc

    NASA NExSS

    Many Words icon

    From Many Worlds

    June 23, 2019
    Marc Kaufman

    1
    Scientists have had a working — and evolving — understanding of the interior of the Earth for only a century or so. But determining whether a distant planet is truly habitable may require an understanding of its inner dynamics — which will for sure be a challenge to achieve. (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

    The quest to find habitable — and perhaps inhabited — planets and moons beyond Earth focuses largely on their location in a solar system and the nature of its host star, the eccentricity of its orbit, its size and rockiness, and the chemical composition of its atmosphere, assuming that it has one.

    Astronomy, astrophysics, cosmochemistry and many other disciplines have made significant progress in characterizing at least some of the billions of exoplanets out there, although measuring the chemical makeup of atmospheres remains a immature field.

    But what if these basic characteristics aren’t sufficient to answer necessary questions about whether a planet is habitable? What if more information — and even more difficult to collect information — is needed?

    That’s the position of many planetary scientists who argue that the dynamics of a planet’s interior are essential to understand its habitability.

    With our existing capabilities, observing an exoplanet’s atmospheric composition will clearly be the first way to search for signatures of life elsewhere. But four scientists at the Carnegie Institution of Science — Anat Shahar, Peter Driscoll, Alycia Weinberger, and George Cody — argued in a recent perspective article in Science that a true picture of planetary habitability must consider how a planet’s atmosphere is linked to and shaped by what’s happening in its interior.

    They argue that on Earth, for instance, plate tectonics are crucial for maintaining a surface climate where life can fill every niche. And without the cycling of material between the planet’s surface and interior, the convection that drives the Earth’s magnetic field would not be possible and without a magnetic field, we would be bombarded by cosmic radiation.

    1
    What makes a planet potentially habitable and what are signs that it is not. This graphic from the Carnegie paper illustrates the differences (Shahar et al.)

    “The perspective was our way to remind people that the only exoplanet observable right now is the atmosphere, but that the atmospheric composition is very much linked to planetary interiors and their evolution,” said lead author Shahar, who is trained in geological sciences. “If there is a hope to one day look for a biosignature, it is crucial we understand all the ways that interiors can influence the atmospheric composition so that the observations can then be better understood.”

    “We need a better understanding of how a planet’s composition and interior influence its habitability, starting with Earth,” she said. “This can be used to guide the search for exoplanets and star systems where life could thrive, signatures of which could be detected by telescopes.”

    It all starts with the formation process. Planets are born from the rotating ring of dust and gas that surrounds a young star.

    The elemental building blocks from which rocky planets form–silicon, magnesium, oxygen, carbon, iron, and hydrogen–are universal. But their abundances and the heating and cooling they experience in their youth will affect their interior chemistry and, in turn, defining factors such ocean volume and atmospheric composition.

    “One of the big questions we need to ask is whether the geologic and dynamic features that make our home planet habitable can be produced on planets with different compositions,” Carnegie planetary scientist Peter Driscoll explained in a release.

    In the next decade as a new generation of telescopes come online, scientists will begin to search in earnest for biosignatures in the atmospheres of rocky exoplanets. But the colleagues say that these observations must be put in the context of a larger understanding of how a planet’s total makeup and interior geochemistry determines the evolution of a stable and temperate surface where life could perhaps arise and thrive.

    “The heart of habitability is in planetary interiors,” concluded Carnegie geochemist George Cody.

    Our knowledge of the Earth’s interior starts with these basic contours: it has a thin outer crust, a thick mantle, and a core the size of Mars. A basic question that can be asked and to some extent answered now is whether this structure is universal for small rocky planets. Will these three layers be present in some form in many other rocky planets as well?

    Earlier preliminary research published in the The Astrophysical Journal suggests that the answer is yes – they will have interiors very similar to Earth.

    “We wanted to see how Earth-like these rocky planets are. It turns out they are very Earth-like,” said lead author Li Zeng of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA)

    To reach this conclusion Zeng and his co-authors applied a computer model known as the Preliminary Reference Earth Model (PREM), which is the standard model for Earth’s interior. They adjusted it to accommodate different masses and compositions, and applied it to six known rocky exoplanets with well-measured masses and physical sizes.

    They found that the other planets, despite their differences from Earth, all should have a nickel/iron core containing about 30 percent of the planet’s mass. In comparison, about a third of the Earth’s mass is in its core. The remainder of each planet would be mantle and crust, just as with Earth.

    “We’ve only understood the Earth’s structure for the past hundred years. Now we can calculate the structures of planets orbiting other stars, even though we can’t visit them,” adds Zeng.

    The model assumes that distant exoplanets have chemical compositions similar to Earth. This is reasonable based on the relevant abundances of key chemical elements like iron, magnesium, silicon, and oxygen in nearby systems. However, planets forming in more or less metal-rich regions of the galaxy could show different interior structures.

    While thinking about exoplanetary interiors—and some day finding ways to investigate them — is intriguing and important, it’s also apparent that there’s a lot more to learn about role of the Earth’s interior in making the planet habitable.

    In 2017, for instance, an interdisciplinary group of early career scientists visited Costa Rica’s subduction zone, (where the ocean floor sinks beneath the continent) to find out if subterranean microbes can affect geological processes that move carbon from Earth’s surface into the deep interior.

    3
    Donato Giovannelli and Karen Lloyd collect samples from the crater lake in Poás Volcano in Costa Rica. (Katie Pratt)

    The study shows that microbes consume and trap a small but measurable amount of the carbon sinking into the trench off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast. The microbes may also be involved in chemical processes that pull out even more carbon, leaving cement-like veins of calcite in the crust.

    According to their new study in Nature, the answer is yes.

    In all, microbes and calcite precipitation combine to trap about 94 percent of the carbon squeezed out from the edge of the oceanic plate as it sinks into the mantle during subduction. This carbon remains naturally sequestered in the crust, where it cannot escape back to the surface through nearby volcanoes in the way that much carbon ultimately recycles.

    These unexpected findings have important implications for how much carbon moves from Earth’s surface into the interior, especially over geological timescales. The research is part of the Deep Carbon Observatory’s Biology Meets Subduction project.

    Overall, the study shows that biology has the power to affect carbon recycling and thereby deep Earth geology.

    “We already knew that microbes altered geological processes when they first began producing oxygen from photosynthesis,” said Donato Giovannelli of University of Naples, Italy (and who I knew from time spent at the Earth-Life Science Institute Tokyo.) He is a specialist in extreme environments and researches what they can tell us about early Earth and possibly other planets.

    “I think there are probably even more ways that biology has had an outsized impact on geology, we just haven’t discovered them yet.”

    The findings also shows, Giovanelli told me, that subsurface microbes might have a similarly outsized effect on the composition and balancing of atmospheres—“hinting to the possibility of detecting the indirect effect of subsurface life through atmosphere measurements of exoplanets,” he said.

    5
    The 2003 finding by Michael Mumma and Geronimo Villanueva of NASA Goddard Space Flight Center showing signs of major plumes of methane on Mars. While some limited and seasonably determined concentrations of methane have been detected since, there has been nothing to compare with the earlier high methane readings Mars — until just last week. (NASA/ M. Mumma et al)

    This idea that subsurface life on distant planets could be identified by their byproducts in the atmosphere has just taken on a new immediacy with findings from the Curiosity rover that high levels of the gas methane had recently been detected on Mars. Earlier research had suggested that Mars had some subsurface methane, but the amount appeared to be quite minimal — except as detected once back in 2003 by NASA scientists.

    None of the researchers now or in the past have claimed that they know the origin of the methane — whether it is produced biologically or through other planetary processes. But on Earth, some 90 percent of methane comes from biology — bacteria, plants, animals.

    Could, then, these methane plumes be a sign that life exists (or existed) below the surface of Mars? It’s possible, and highlights the great importance of what goes on below the surface of planets and moons.

    See the full article here .


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    About Many Worlds
    There are many worlds out there waiting to fire your imagination.

    Marc Kaufman is an experienced journalist, having spent three decades at The Washington Post and The Philadelphia Inquirer, and is the author of two books on searching for life and planetary habitability. While the “Many Worlds” column is supported by the Lunar Planetary Institute/USRA and informed by NASA’s NExSS initiative, any opinions expressed are the author’s alone.

    This site is for everyone interested in the burgeoning field of exoplanet detection and research, from the general public to scientists in the field. It will present columns, news stories and in-depth features, as well as the work of guest writers.

    About NExSS

    The Nexus for Exoplanet System Science (NExSS) is a NASA research coordination network dedicated to the study of planetary habitability. The goals of NExSS are to investigate the diversity of exoplanets and to learn how their history, geology, and climate interact to create the conditions for life. NExSS investigators also strive to put planets into an architectural context — as solar systems built over the eons through dynamical processes and sculpted by stars. Based on our understanding of our own solar system and habitable planet Earth, researchers in the network aim to identify where habitable niches are most likely to occur, which planets are most likely to be habitable. Leveraging current NASA investments in research and missions, NExSS will accelerate the discovery and characterization of other potentially life-bearing worlds in the galaxy, using a systems science approach.
    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 [JAXA]Greenhouse Gases Observing Satellite.

     
  • richardmitnick 11:36 am on May 4, 2019 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: "When it comes to planetary habitability it’s what’s inside that counts", A true picture of planetary habitability must consider how a planet’s atmosphere is linked to and shaped by what’s happening in its interior, , , , , Geochemistry, , , , ,   

    From Carnegie Institution for Science: “When it comes to planetary habitability, it’s what’s inside that counts” 

    Carnegie Institution for Science
    From Carnegie Institution for Science

    May 01, 2019

    Which of Earth’s features were essential for the origin and sustenance of life? And how do scientists identify those features on other worlds?

    A team of Carnegie investigators with array of expertise ranging from geochemistry to planetary science to astronomy published this week in Science an essay urging the research community to recognize the vital importance of a planet’s interior dynamics in creating an environment that’s hospitable for life.

    With our existing capabilities, observing an exoplanet’s atmospheric composition will be the first way to search for signatures of life elsewhere. However, Carnegie’s Anat Shahar, Peter Driscoll, Alycia Weinberger, and George Cody argue that a true picture of planetary habitability must consider how a planet’s atmosphere is linked to and shaped by what’s happening in its interior.

    1
    Reprinted with permission from Shahar et. al., Science Volume 364:3(2019).

    For example, on Earth, plate tectonics are crucial for maintaining a surface climate where life can thrive. What’s more, without the cycling of material between its surface and interior, the convection that drives the Earth’s magnetic field would not be possible and without a magnetic field, we would be bombarded by cosmic radiation.

    “We need a better understanding of how a planet’s composition and interior influence its habitability, starting with Earth,” Shahar said. “This can be used to guide the search for exoplanets and star systems where life could thrive, signatures of which could be detected by telescopes.”

    It all starts with the formation process. Planets are born from the rotating ring of dust and gas that surrounds a young star. The elemental building blocks from which rocky planets form—silicon, magnesium, oxygen, carbon, iron, and hydrogen—are universal. But their abundances and the heating and cooling they experience in their youth will affect their interior chemistry and, in turn, things like ocean volume and atmospheric composition.

    “One of the big questions we need to ask is whether the geologic and dynamic features that make our home planet habitable can be produced on planets with different compositions,” Driscoll explained.

    The Carnegie colleagues assert that the search for extraterrestrial life must be guided by an interdisciplinary approach that combines astronomical observations, laboratory experiments of planetary interior conditions, and mathematical modeling and simulations.

    2
    Artist’s impression of the surface of the planet Barnard’s Star b courtesy of ESO/M. Kornmesser.

    “Carnegie scientists are long-established world leaders in the fields of geochemistry, geophysics, planetary science, astrobiology, and astronomy,” said Weinberger. “So, our institution is perfectly placed to tackle this cross-disciplinary challenge.”

    In the next decade as a new generation of telescopes come online, scientists will begin to search in earnest for biosignatures in the atmospheres of rocky exoplanets. But the colleagues say that these observations must be put in the context of a larger understanding of how a planet’s total makeup and interior geochemistry determines the evolution of a stable and temperate surface where life could perhaps arise and thrive.

    “The heart of habitability is in planetary interiors,” concluded Cody.

    See the full article here .


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    Carnegie Institution of Washington Bldg

    Carnegie Institution for Science

    Andrew Carnegie established a unique organization dedicated to scientific discovery “to encourage, in the broadest and most liberal manner, investigation, research, and discovery and the application of knowledge to the improvement of mankind…” The philosophy was and is to devote the institution’s resources to “exceptional” individuals so that they can explore the most intriguing scientific questions in an atmosphere of complete freedom. Carnegie and his trustees realized that flexibility and freedom were essential to the institution’s success and that tradition is the foundation of the institution today as it supports research in the Earth, space, and life sciences.

    6.5 meter Magellan Telescopes located at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory, Chile.
    6.5 meter Magellan Telescopes located at Carnegie’s Las Campanas Observatory, Chile


    Carnegie Las Campanas 2.5 meter Irénée Dupont telescope, Atacama Desert, over 2,500 m (8,200 ft) high approximately 100 kilometres (62 mi) northeast of the city of La Serena,Chile


    Carnegie Institution Swope telescope at Las Campanas, Chile, 100 kilometres (62 mi) northeast of the city of La Serena. near the north end of a 7 km (4.3 mi) long mountain ridge. Cerro Las Campanas, near the southern end and over 2,500 m (8,200 ft) high, at Las Campanas, Chile

    [/caption]

     
  • richardmitnick 11:57 am on August 18, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , , , , Geochemistry, One Third of Known Planets May Be Enormous Ocean Worlds   

    From Discover Magazine: “One Third of Known Planets May Be Enormous Ocean Worlds” 

    DiscoverMag

    From Discover Magazine

    August 17, 2018
    John Wenz

    1
    A new model of Super-Earths implies many of these planets are covered in enormous, thick oceans. (Credit: NASA)

    Water is a key ingredient for life — and new research suggests we might find it all over the galaxy.

    Scientists looked at the mass of Super-Earths, a kind of planet common across the cosmos but not present in our own solar system. These rocky worlds are several times larger than Earth, but the team’s analysis of known Super-Earths reveals something astounding: Many of them may be literal water worlds.

    According to the research, many of these planets may be half water. By comparison, water is just a tiny fraction of Earth’s mass. But that doesn’t mean these Super-Earths are friendly places to live. The Harvard-led team determined that those planets with 1.5 times Earth’s radius or below would be terrestrial, or rocky.

    Super-Earths above 2.5 Earth radius might more like tiny versions of Neptune or Uranus. The two water-dominated planets in our solar system are far from life friendly. Such hulking Super-Earths would be enshrouded by a mostly-water vapor atmosphere. Further below, there might be oceans at extreme pressures and temperatures — between 390 and 930 degrees Fahrenheit (200 to 500 Celsius).

    But that doesn’t necessarily preclude life.

    “Life could develop in certain near-surface layers on these water worlds when the pressure, temperature and chemical conditions are appropriate,” says the study’s lead author, Li Zeng of Harvard University. Zeng also believes that these planets may form more like a gas giant, with a core deep underneath a dense atmosphere.

    “One has to realize that, although water appears to be precious and rarer on Earth and other inner solar system terrestrial planets, it is in fact one of the most abundant substance in the universe, since oxygen is the third most abundant element after hydrogen and helium,” Zeng said.

    And based on the team’s modeling, up to 35 percent of known planets might be water worlds. That could mean the coming years will lead to the discovery of a whole lot of exo-oceans — and a whole host of new questions.

    The scientists presented their research Friday at the Goldschmidt Conference, the world’s preeminent conference on geochemistry.

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 2:20 pm on January 3, 2018 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: A study by UC Berkeley geochemists presents new evidence that high levels of oxygen were not critical to the origin of animals, , , Geochemistry, ,   

    From UC Berkeley: “Which came first: complex life or high atmospheric oxygen?” 

    UC Berkeley

    UC Berkeley

    January 3, 2018
    Robert Sanders
    rlsanders@berkeley.edu

    We and all other animals wouldn’t be here today if our planet didn’t have a lot of oxygen in its atmosphere and oceans. But how crucial were high oxygen levels to the transition from simple, single-celled life forms to the complexity we see today?

    A study by UC Berkeley geochemists presents new evidence that high levels of oxygen were not critical to the origin of animals.

    1
    By measuring the oxidation of iron in pillow basalts from undersea volcanic eruptions, UC Berkeley scientists have more precisely dated the oxygenation of the deep ocean, inferring from that when oxygen levels in the atmosphere rose to current high levels. Credit: National Science Foundation .

    The researchers found that the transition to a world with an oxygenated deep ocean occurred between 540 and 420 million years ago. They attribute this to an increase in atmospheric O2 to levels comparable to the 21 percent oxygen in the atmosphere today.

    This inferred rise comes hundreds of millions of years after the origination of animals, which occurred between 700 and 800 million years ago.

    “The oxygenation of the deep ocean and our interpretation of this as the result of a rise in atmospheric O2 was a pretty late event in the context of Earth history,” said Daniel Stolper, an assistant professor of earth and planetary science at UC Berkeley. “This is significant because it provides new evidence that the origination of early animals, which required O2 for their metabolisms, may have gone on in a world with an atmosphere that had relatively low oxygen levels compared to today.”

    He and postdoctoral fellow Brenhin Keller will report their findings in a paper posted online Jan. 3 in advance of publication in the journal Nature. Keller is also affiliated with the Berkeley Geochronology Center.

    The history of Earth’s oxygen

    Oxygen has played a key role in the history of Earth, not only because of its importance for organisms that breathe oxygen, but because of its tendency to react, often violently, with other compounds to, for example, make iron rust, plants burn and natural gas explode.

    Tracking the concentration of oxygen in the ocean and atmosphere over Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history, however, isn’t easy. For the first 2 billion years, most scientists believe very little oxygen was present in the atmosphere or ocean. But about 2.5-2.3 billion years ago, atmospheric oxygen levels first increased. The geologic effects of this are evident: rocks on land exposed to the atmosphere suddenly began turning red as the iron in them reacted with oxygen to form iron oxides similar to how iron metal rusts.

    Earth scientists have calculated that around this time, atmospheric oxygen levels first exceeded about a hundred thousandth of today’s level (0.001 percent), but remained too low to oxygenate the deep ocean, which stayed largely anoxic.

    By 400 million years ago, fossil charcoal deposits first appear, an indication that atmospheric O2 levels were high enough to support wildfires, which require about 50 to 70 percent of modern oxygen levels, and oxygenate the deep ocean. How atmospheric oxygen levels varied between 2,500 and 400 million years ago is less certain and remains a subject of debate.

    “Filling in the history of atmospheric oxygen levels from about 2.5 billion to 400 million years ago has been of great interest given O2’s central role in numerous geochemical and biological processes. For example, one explanation for why animals show up when they do is because that is about when oxygen levels first approached the high atmospheric concentrations seen today,” Stolper said. “This explanation requires that the two are causally linked such that the change to near-modern atmospheric O2 levels was an environmental driver for the evolution of our oxygen-requiring predecessors.”

    In contrast, some researchers think the two events are largely unrelated. Critical to helping to resolve this debate is pinpointing when atmospheric oxygen levels rose to near modern levels. But past estimates of when this oxygenation occurred range from 800 to 400 million years ago, straddling the period during which animals originated.

    When did oxygen levels change for a second time?

    Stolper and Keller hoped to pinpoint a key milestone in Earth’s history: when oxygen levels became high enough – about 10 to 50 percent of today’s level – to oxygenate the deep ocean. Their approach is based on looking at the oxidation state of iron in igneous rocks formed undersea (referred to as “submarine”) volcanic eruptions, which produce “pillows” and massive flows of basalt as the molten rock extrudes from ocean ridges. Critically, after eruption, seawater circulates through the rocks. Today, these circulating fluids contain oxygen and oxidize the iron in basalts. But in a world with deep-oceans devoid of O2, they expected little change in the oxidation state of iron in the basalts after eruption.


    Eruption of pillow basalts on the ocean floor.

    “Our idea was to study the history of the oxidation state of iron in these basalts and see if we could pinpoint when the iron began to show signs of oxidation and thus when the deep ocean first started to contain appreciable amounts of dissolved O2,” Stolper said.

    To do this, they compiled more than 1,000 published measurements of the oxidation state of iron from ancient submarine basalts. They found that the basaltic iron only becomes significantly oxidized relative to magmatic values between about 540 and 420 million years ago, hundreds of millions of years after the origination of animals. They attribute this change to the rise in atmospheric O2 levels to near modern levels. This finding is consistent with some but not all histories of atmospheric and oceanic O2 concentrations.

    “This work indicates that an increase in atmospheric O2 to levels sufficient to oxygenate the deep ocean and create a world similar to that seen today was not necessary for the emergence of animals,” Stolper said. “Additionally, the submarine basalt record provides a new, quantitative window into the geochemical state of the deep ocean hundreds of millions to billions of years ago.”

    See the full article here .

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    • stewarthoughblog 12:01 am on January 4, 2018 Permalink | Reply

      Interesting finding and conclusion. What appears to be lacking is why they do not consider it pertinent and critical to the model they are proposing that the essential barrier to cosmic radiation that ozone forms based on some minimum level of oxygen in the atmosphere. The survivability of advanced organisms is highly dependent on the ozone layer, so consideration of the timing of their appearance relative to increase of oxygen levels is significant, unlike Stolper’s incoherent proposition that increasing oxygen levels prompted evolutionary changes that produced advanced organisms.

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  • richardmitnick 1:35 pm on September 22, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Dauphas and his team looked at titanium in the shales over time, Geochemistry, Geologists often look at a particular kind of rock called shales, , If you fertilize the ocean with phosphorus life will bloom, Plate techtonics is believed to be needed to create felsic rock, Study suggests significant tectonic action was already taking place 3.5 billion years ago—about half a billion years earlier than currently thought, The flood of oxygen came from a surge of photosynthetic microorganisms - cyanobacteria, The titanium timeline suggests that the primary trigger of the surge of phosphorus was the change in the makeup of mafic rock over time, Tracing the path of metallic element titanium through the Earth’s crust across time,   

    From U Chicago: “Study suggests tectonic plates began moving half a billion years earlier than thought” 

    U Chicago bloc

    University of Chicago

    September 21, 2017
    Louise Lerner

    1
    While previous studies had argued that Earth’s crust 3.5 billion years ago looked like these Hawaiian lavas, a new study led by UChicago scientists suggests by then much of it had already been transformed into lighter-colored felsic rock by plate tectonics.
    Photo by Basil Greber

    The Earth’s history is written in its elements, but as the tectonic plates slip and slide over and under each other over time, they muddy that evidence—and with it the secrets of why Earth can sustain life.

    A new study led by UChicago geochemists rearranges the picture of the early Earth by tracing the path of metallic element titanium through the Earth’s crust across time. The research, published Sept. 22 in Science, suggests significant tectonic action was already taking place 3.5 billion years ago—about half a billion years earlier than currently thought.

    The crust was once made of uniformly dark, magnesium- and iron-rich mafic minerals. But today the crust looks very different between land and ocean: The crust on land is now a lighter-colored felsic, rich in silicon and aluminum. The point at which these two diverged is important, since the composition of minerals affects the flow of nutrients available to the fledgling life struggling to survive on Earth.

    “This question has been discussed since geologists first started thinking about rocks,” said lead author Nicolas Dauphas, the Louis Block Professor and head of the Origins Laboratory in the Department of the Geophysical Sciences and the Enrico Fermi Institute. “This result is a surprise and certainly an upheaval in that discussion.”

    To reconstruct the crust changing over time, geologists often look at a particular kind of rock called shales, made up of tiny bits of other rocks and minerals that are carried by water into mud deposits and compressed into rock. The only problem is that scientists have to adjust the numbers to account for different rates of weathering and transport. “There are many things that can foul you up,” Dauphas said.

    To avoid this issue, Dauphas and his team looked at titanium in the shales over time. This element doesn’t dissolve in water and isn’t taken up by plants in nutrient cycles, so they thought the data would have fewer biases with which to contend.

    They crushed samples of shale rocks of different ages from around the world and checked in what form its titanium appeared. The proportions of titanium isotopes present should shift as the rock changes from mafic to felsic. Instead, they saw little change over three and a half billion years, suggesting that the transition must have occurred before then.

    2
    These granite peaks are an example of felsic rock, created via plate tectonics. Photo by Basil Greber

    This also would mark the beginning of plate tectonics, since that process is believed to be needed to create felsic rock.

    “With a null response like that, seeing no change, it’s difficult to imagine an alternate explanation,” said Matouš Ptáček, a UChicago graduate student who co-authored the study.

    “Our results can also be used to track the average composition of the continental crust through time, allowing us to investigate the supply of nutrients to the oceans going back 3.5 billion years ago,” said Nicolas Greber, the first author of the paper, then a postdoctoral researcher at UChicago and now with the University of Geneva.

    Phosphorous leads to life

    The question about nutrients is important for our understanding of the circumstances around a mysterious but crucial turning point called the great oxygenation event. This is when oxygen started to emerge as an important constituent of Earth’s atmosphere, wreaking a massive change on the planet—and making it possible for multi-celled beings to evolve.

    The flood of oxygen came from a surge of photosynthetic microorganisms; and in turn their work was fostered by a surge of nutrients to the oceans, particularly phosphorus. “Phosphorus is the most important limiting nutrient in the modern ocean. If you fertilize the ocean with phosphorus, life will bloom,” Dauphas said.

    The titanium timeline suggests that the primary trigger of the surge of phosphorus was the change in the makeup of mafic rock over time. As the Earth cooled, the mafic rock coming out of volcanoes and underground melts became richer in phosphorus.

    “We’ve known for a long time that mafic rock changed over time, but what we didn’t know was that their contribution to the crust has stayed rather consistent,” Ptáček said.

    Other institutions on the study were the University of California-Riverside, University of Oregon-Eugene and the University of Johannesburg.

    See the full article here .

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    An intellectual destination

    One of the world’s premier academic and research institutions, the University of Chicago has driven new ways of thinking since our 1890 founding. Today, UChicago is an intellectual destination that draws inspired scholars to our Hyde Park and international campuses, keeping UChicago at the nexus of ideas that challenge and change the world.

     
  • richardmitnick 4:43 pm on March 1, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: 3.77-billion-year-old fossils stake new claim to oldest evidence of life, , , Geochemistry, , , , , ,   

    From Science: “3.77-billion-year-old fossils stake new claim to oldest evidence of life” 

    AAAS
    Science Magazine

    Mar. 1, 2017
    Carolyn Gramling

    1
    These tubelike structures, formed of an iron ore called hematite, may be microfossils of 3.77-billion-year-old life at ancient hydrothermal vents.

    Life on Earth may have originated in the sunless depths of the ocean rather than shallow seas. In a new study, scientists studying 3.77-billion-year-old rocks have found tubelike fossils similar to structures found at hydrothermal vents, which host thriving biological communities. That would make them more than 300 million years older than the most ancient signs of life on Earth—fossilized microbial mats called stromatolites that grew in shallow seas. Other scientists are skeptical about the new claims.

    “The authors offer a convincing set of observations that could signify life,” says Kurt Konhauser, a geomicrobiologist at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada, who was not involved in the study. But “at present, I do not see a way in which we will definitively prove ancient life at 3.8 billion years ago.”

    When life first emerged on Earth has been an enduring and frustrating mystery. The planet is 4.55 billion years old, but thanks to plate tectonics and the constant recycling of Earth’s crust, only a handful of rock outcrops remain that are older than 3 billion years, including 3.7-billion-year-old formations in Greenland’s Isua Greenstone Belt. And these rocks tend to be twisted up and chemically altered by heat and pressure, making it devilishly difficult to detect unequivocal signs of life.

    “It’s a challenge in rocks that have been this messed up,” says Abigail Allwood, a geologist with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, who was also not involved in the study. “There’s only so much you can do with them.”

    Nevertheless, researchers have searched through these most ancient rocks for structural or chemical relics that may have lingered. Last year, for example, scientists reported identifying odd reddish peaks in 3.7-billion-year-old rocks in Greenland that may be the product of stromatolites, though many doubted that interpretation. The best evidence for these fossilized algal mats comes from 3.4-billion-year-old rocks in Australia, generally thought of as the strongest evidence for early life on Earth.

    But some scientists think ocean life may have begun earlier—and deeper. In the modern ocean, life thrives in and around the vents that form near seafloor spreading ridges or subduction zones—places where Earth’s tectonic plates are pulling apart or grinding together. The vents spew seawater, superheated by magma in the ocean crust and laden with metal minerals such as iron sulfide. As the water cools, the metals settle out, forming towering spires and chimneys. The mysterious ecosystem that inhabits this sunless, harsh environment includes bacteria and giant tube worms that don’t derive energy from photosynthesis. Such hardy communities, scientists have suggested, may not only have thrived on early Earth, but may also be an analog for life on other planets.

    Now, a team led by geochemist Dominic Papineau of University College London and his Ph.D. student Matthew Dodd says it has found clear evidence of such ancient vent life. The clues come from ancient rocks in northern Quebec in Canada that are at least 3.77 billion years old and may be even older than 4 billion years. Dodd examined hair-thin slices of rock from this formation and found intriguing features: tiny tubes composed of an iron oxide called hematite, as well as filaments of hematite that branch out and sometimes terminate into large knobs.

    Filaments and tubes are common features in more recent fossils that are attributed to the activity of iron-oxidizing bacteria at seafloor hydrothermal vents. Papineau was initially skeptical. However, he says, “within a year [Dodd] had found so much compelling evidence that I was convinced.”

    The team also identified carbonate “rosettes,” tiny concentric rings that contain traces of life’s building blocks including carbon, calcium, and phosphorus; and tiny, round granules of graphite, a form of carbon. Such rosettes and granules had been observed previously in rocks of similar age, but whether they are biological in origin is hotly debated. The rosettes can form nonbiologically from a series of chemical reactions, but Papineau says the rosettes in the new study contain a calcium phosphate mineral called apatite, which strongly suggests the presence of microorganisms. The graphite granules may represent part of a complicated chemical chain reaction mediated by the bacteria, he says. Taken together, the structures and their chemistry point to a biological origin near a submarine hydrothermal vent, the team reports online today in Nature. That would make them among the oldest signs of life on Earth—and, depending on the actual age of the rocks, possibly the oldest.

    That doesn’t necessarily mean that life originated in deep waters rather than in shallow seas, Papineau says. “It’s not necessarily mutually exclusive—if we are ready to accept the fact that life diversified very early.” Both the iron-oxidizing bacteria and the photosynthetic cyanobacteria that build stromatolite mats could have evolved from an earlier ancestor, he says.

    But researchers like Konhauser remain skeptical of the paper’s conclusion. For example, he says, the observed hematite tubes and filaments are similar to structures associated with iron-oxidizing bacteria, “but of course that does not mean the [3.77-] billion-year-old structures are cells.” Moreover, he notes, if the tubes were formed by iron-oxidizing bacteria, they would need oxygen, in short supply at this early moment in Earth’s history. It implies that photosynthetic bacteria were already around to produce it. But it’s still unclear how oxygen would get down to the depths of early Earth’s ocean. The cyanobacteria that make stromatolites, on the other hand, make oxygen rather than consume it.

    The new paper makes “a more detailed case than has been presented previously,” Allwood says. Most previous reports of possible signs of life older than about 3.5 billion years have been questioned, she adds—not because life didn’t exist, but because it’s just so difficult to prove the further back in time you go in the rock record. “There’s still quite a bit of room for doubt.”

    See the full article here .

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  • richardmitnick 12:53 pm on February 11, 2017 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: Drawn from the Deep, Earth’s mantle — a primordial soup even older than the moon., Geochemistry, High helium-3 relative to helium-4,   

    From UCSB: “Drawn from the Deep” 

    UC Santa Barbara Name bloc

    February 6, 2017
    Julie Cohen

    Geochemist Matt Jackson finds the hottest, most buoyant mantle plumes draw from a primordial reservoir deep in the Earth

    1
    Lead author Matthew Jackson samples Hawaiian lava with a rock hammer. Photo Credit: WHOI Geodynamics Program

    2
    Matthew Jackson. Photo Credit: Anna Maria Skuladottir

    The Earth’s mantle — the layer between the crust and the outer core — is home to a primordial soup even older than the moon. Among the main ingredients is helium-3 (He-3), a vestige of the Big Bang and nuclear fusion reactions in stars. And the mantle is its only terrestrial source.

    Scientists studying volcanic hotspots have strong evidence of this, finding high helium-3 relative to helium-4 in some plumes, the upwellings from the Earth’s deep mantle. Primordial reservoirs in the deep Earth, sampled by a small number of volcanic hotspots globally, have this ancient He-3/4 signature.

    Inspired by a 2012 paper that proposed a correlation between such hotspots and the velocity of seismic waves moving through the Earth’s interior, UC Santa Barbara geochemist Matthew Jackson teamed with the authors of the original paper — Thorsten Becker of the University of Texas at Austin and Jasper Konter of the University of Hawaii — to show that only the hottest hotspots with the slowest wave velocity draw from the primitive reservoir formed early in the planet’s history. Their findings appear in the journal Nature.

    “We used the seismology of the shallow mantle — the rate at which seismic waves travel through the Earth below its crust — to make inferences about the deeper mantle,” said Jackson, an assistant professor in UCSB’s Department of Earth Science. “At 200 km, the shallow mantle has the largest variability of seismic velocities — more than 6 percent, which is a lot. What’s more, that variability, which we hypothesize relates to temperature, correlates with He-3.”

    For their study, the researchers used the latest seismic models of the Earth’s velocity structure and 35 years of helium data. When they compared oceanic hotspots with high levels of He-3/4 to seismic wave velocities, they found that these represent the hottest hotspots, with seismic waves that move more slowly than they do in cooler areas. They also analyzed hotspot buoyancy flux, which can be used to measure how much melt a particular hotspot produces. In Hawaii, the Galapagos Islands, Samoa and Easter Island as well as in Iceland, hotspots had high buoyancy levels, confirming a basic rule of physics: the hotter, the more buoyant.

    “We found that the higher the hotspot buoyancy flux, the more melt a hotspot was producing and the more likely it was to have high He-3/4,” Jackson said. “Hotter plumes not only have slower seismic velocity and a higher hotspot buoyancy flux, they also are the ones with the highest He-3/4. This all ties together nicely and is the first time that He-3/4 has been correlated with shallow mantle velocities and hotspot buoyancy globally.”

    Becker noted that correlation does not imply causality, “but it is pretty nifty that we found two strong correlations, which both point to the same physically plausible mechanism: the primordial stuff gets picked up preferentially by the most buoyant thermochemical upwellings.”

    The authors also wanted to know why only the hottest, most buoyant plumes sample high He-3/4.

    “The explanation that we came up with — which people who do numerical simulations have been suggesting for a long time — is that whatever this reservoir is with primitive helium, it must be really dense so that only the hottest, most buoyant plumes can entrain some of it to the surface,” Jackson said. “That makes sense and it also explains how something so ancient could survive in the chaotically convecting mantle for 4.5 billion years. The density contrast makes it more likely that the ancient helium reservoir is preserved rather than mixed away.”

    “Since this correlation of geochemistry and seismology now holds from helium isotopes in this work to the compositions we examined in 2012, it appears that overall hotspot geochemical variations will need to be re-examined from the perspective of buoyancy,” Konter concluded.

    See the full article here .

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    UC Santa Barbara Seal
    The University of California, Santa Barbara (commonly referred to as UC Santa Barbara or UCSB) is a public research university and one of the 10 general campuses of the University of California system. Founded in 1891 as an independent teachers’ college, UCSB joined the University of California system in 1944 and is the third-oldest general-education campus in the system. The university is a comprehensive doctoral university and is organized into five colleges offering 87 undergraduate degrees and 55 graduate degrees. In 2012, UCSB was ranked 41st among “National Universities” and 10th among public universities by U.S. News & World Report. UCSB houses twelve national research centers, including the renowned Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics.

     
  • richardmitnick 7:53 am on October 20, 2015 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Early life on Earth, , Geochemistry,   

    From UCLA: “Life on Earth likely started at least 4.1 billion years ago — much earlier than scientists had thought” 

    UCLA bloc

    UCLA

    October 19, 2015
    Stuart Wolpert

    1
    Mark Harrison at UCLA.

    UCLA geochemists have found evidence that life likely existed on Earth at least 4.1 billion years ago — 300 million years earlier than previous research suggested. The discovery indicates that life may have begun shortly after the planet formed 4.54 billion years ago.

    The research is published today in the online early edition of the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

    “Twenty years ago, this would have been heretical; finding evidence of life 3.8 billion years ago was shocking,” said Mark Harrison, co-author of the research and a professor of geochemistry at UCLA.

    “Life on Earth may have started almost instantaneously,” added Harrison, a member of the National Academy of Sciences. “With the right ingredients, life seems to form very quickly.”

    The new research suggests that life existed prior to the massive bombardment of the inner solar system that formed the moon’s large craters 3.9 billion years ago.

    “If all life on Earth died during this bombardment, which some scientists have argued, then life must have restarted quickly,” said Patrick Boehnke, a co-author of the research and a graduate student in Harrison’s laboratory.

    Scientists had long believed the Earth was dry and desolate during that time period. Harrison’s research — including a 2008 study in Nature he co-authored with Craig Manning, a professor of geology and geochemistry at UCLA, and former UCLA graduate student Michelle Hopkins — is proving otherwise.

    “The early Earth certainly wasn’t a hellish, dry, boiling planet; we see absolutely no evidence for that,” Harrison said. “The planet was probably much more like it is today than previously thought.”

    The researchers, led by Elizabeth Bell — a postdoctoral scholar in Harrison’s laboratory — studied more than 10,000 zircons originally formed from molten rocks, or magmas, from Western Australia. Zircons are heavy, durable minerals related to the synthetic cubic zirconium used for imitation diamonds. They capture and preserve their immediate environment, meaning they can serve as time capsules.

    The scientists identified 656 zircons containing dark specks that could be revealing and closely analyzed 79 of them with Raman spectroscopy, a technique that shows the molecular and chemical structure of ancient microorganisms in three dimensions.

    Bell and Boehnke, who have pioneered chemical and mineralogical tests to determine the condition of ancient zircons, were searching for carbon, the key component for life.

    One of the 79 zircons contained graphite — pure carbon — in two locations.

    “The first time that the graphite ever got exposed in the last 4.1 billion years is when Beth Ann and Patrick made the measurements this year,” Harrison said.

    How confident are they that their zircon represents 4.1 billion-year-old graphite?

    “Very confident,” Harrison said. “There is no better case of a primary inclusion in a mineral ever documented, and nobody has offered a plausible alternative explanation for graphite of non-biological origin into a zircon.”

    The graphite is older than the zircon containing it, the researchers said. They know the zircon is 4.1 billion years old, based on its ratio of uranium to lead; they don’t know how much older the graphite is.

    The research suggests life in the universe could be abundant, Harrison said. On Earth, simple life appears to have formed quickly, but it likely took many millions of years for very simple life to evolve the ability to photosynthesize.

    The carbon contained in the zircon has a characteristic signature — a specific ratio of carbon-12 to carbon-13 — that indicates the presence of photosynthetic life.

    “We need to think differently about the early Earth,” Bell said.

    Wendy Mao, an associate professor of geological sciences and photon science at Stanford University, is the other co-author of the research.

    The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and a Simons Collaboration on the Origin of Life Postdoctoral Fellowship granted to Bell.

    See the full article here .

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    UC LA Campus

    For nearly 100 years, UCLA has been a pioneer, persevering through impossibility, turning the futile into the attainable.

    We doubt the critics, reject the status quo and see opportunity in dissatisfaction. Our campus, faculty and students are driven by optimism. It is not naïve; it is essential. And it has fueled every accomplishment, allowing us to redefine what’s possible, time after time.

    This can-do perspective has brought us 12 Nobel Prizes, 12 Rhodes Scholarships, more NCAA titles than any university and more Olympic medals than most nations. Our faculty and alumni helped create the Internet and pioneered reverse osmosis. And more than 100 companies have been created based on technology developed at UCLA.

     
  • richardmitnick 6:35 am on December 20, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , Geochemistry,   

    From OSU: “Study Hints that Ancient Earth Made Its Own Water—Geologically” 

    OSU

    Ohio State University

    December 17, 2014
    Pam Frost Gorder

    A new study is helping to answer a longstanding question that has recently moved to the forefront of earth science: Did our planet make its own water through geologic processes, or did water come to us via icy comets from the far reaches of the solar system?

    The answer is likely “both,” according to researchers at The Ohio State University— and the same amount of water that currently fills the Pacific Ocean could be buried deep inside the planet right now.

    At the American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting on Wednesday, Dec. 17, they report the discovery of a previously unknown geochemical pathway by which the Earth can sequester water in its interior for billions of years and still release small amounts to the surface via plate tectonics, feeding our oceans from within.

    1
    Wendy Panero

    In trying to understand the formation of the early Earth, some researchers have suggested that the planet was dry and inhospitable to life until icy comets pelted the earth and deposited water on the surface.

    Wendy Panero, associate professor of earth sciences at Ohio State, and doctoral student Jeff Pigott are pursuing a different hypothesis: that Earth was formed with entire oceans of water in its interior, and has been continuously supplying water to the surface via plate tectonics ever since.

    Researchers have long accepted that the mantle contains some water, but how much water is a mystery. And, if some geological mechanism has been supplying water to the surface all this time, wouldn’t the mantle have run out of water by now?

    Because there’s no way to directly study deep mantle rocks, Panero and Pigott are probing the question with high-pressure physics experiments and computer calculations.

    “When we look into the origins of water on Earth, what we’re really asking is, why are we so different than all the other planets?” Panero said. “In this solar system, Earth is unique because we have liquid water on the surface. We’re also the only planet with active plate tectonics. Maybe this water in the mantle is key to plate tectonics, and that’s part of what makes Earth habitable.”

    Central to the study is the idea that rocks that appear dry to the human eye can actually contain water—in the form of hydrogen atoms trapped inside natural voids and crystal defects. Oxygen is plentiful in minerals, so when a mineral contains some hydrogen, certain chemical reactions can free the hydrogen to bond with the oxygen and make water.

    Stray atoms of hydrogen could make up only a tiny fraction of mantle rock, the researchers explained. Given that the mantle is more than 80 percent of the planet’s total volume, however, those stray atoms add up to a lot of potential water.

    In a lab at Ohio State, the researchers compress different minerals that are common to the mantle and subject them to high pressures and temperatures using a diamond anvil cell—a device that squeezes a tiny sample of material between two diamonds and heats it with a laser—to simulate conditions in the deep Earth. They examine how the minerals’ crystal structures change as they are compressed, and use that information to gauge the minerals’ relative capacities for storing hydrogen. Then, they extend their experimental results using computer calculations to uncover the geochemical processes that would enable these minerals to rise through the mantle to the surface—a necessary condition for water to escape into the oceans.

    2
    This plate tectonics diagram from the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center shows how mantle circulation delivers new rock to the crust via mid-ocean ridges. New research suggests that mantle circulation also delivers water to the oceans.

    In a paper now submitted to a peer-reviewed academic journal, they reported their recent tests of the mineral bridgmanite, a high-pressure form of olivine. While bridgmanite is the most abundant mineral in the lower mantle, they found that it contains too little hydrogen to play an important role in Earth’s water supply.

    Another research group recently found that ringwoodite, another form of olivine, does contain enough hydrogen to make it a good candidate for deep-earth water storage. So Panero and Pigott focused their study on the depth where ringwoodite is found—a place 325-500 miles below the surface that researchers call the “transition zone”—as the most likely region that can hold a planet’s worth of water. From there, the same convection of mantle rock that produces plate tectonics could carry the water to the surface.

    One problem: If all the water in ringwoodite is continually drained to the surface via plate tectonics, how could the planet hold any in reserve?

    For the research presented at AGU, Panero and Pigott performed new computer calculations of the geochemistry in the lowest portion of the mantle, some 500 miles deep and more. There, another mineral, garnet, emerged as a likely water-carrier—a go-between that could deliver some of the water from ringwoodite down into the otherwise dry lower mantle.

    If this scenario is accurate, the Earth may today hold half as much water in its depths as is currently flowing in oceans on the surface, Panero said—an amount that would approximately equal the volume of the Pacific Ocean. This water is continuously cycled through the transition zone as a result of plate tectonics.

    “One way to look at this research is that we’re putting constraints on the amount of water that could be down there,” Pigott added.

    Panero called the complex relationship between plate tectonics and surface water “one of the great mysteries in the geosciences.” But this new study supports researchers’ growing suspicion that mantle convection somehow regulates the amount of water in the oceans. It also vastly expands the timeline for Earth’s water cycle.

    “If all of the Earth’s water is on the surface, that gives us one interpretation of the water cycle, where we can think of water cycling from oceans into the atmosphere and into the groundwater over millions of years,” she said. “But if mantle circulation is also part of the water cycle, the total cycle time for our planet’s water has to be billions of years.”

    See the full article here.

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  • richardmitnick 2:47 pm on December 10, 2014 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , , Geochemistry, , ,   

    From astrobio.net: “Warmer Pacific Ocean could release millions of tons of seafloor methane” 

    U Washington

    University of Washington

    December 9, 2014
    Hannah Hickey

    Off the West Coast of the United States, methane gas is trapped in frozen layers below the seafloor. New research from the University of Washington shows that water at intermediate depths is warming enough to cause these carbon deposits to melt, releasing methane into the sediments and surrounding water.

    Researchers found that water off the coast of Washington is gradually warming at a depth of 500 meters, about a third of a mile down. That is the same depth where methane transforms from a solid to a gas. The research suggests that ocean warming could be triggering the release of a powerful greenhouse gas.

    b
    Sonar image of bubbles rising from the seafloor off the Washington coast. The base of the column is 1/3 of a mile (515 meters) deep and the top of the plume is at 1/10 of a mile (180 meters) deep.Brendan Philip / UW

    “We calculate that methane equivalent in volume to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill is released every year off the Washington coast,” said Evan Solomon, a UW assistant professor of oceanography. He is co-author of a paper to appear in Geophysical Research Letters.

    While scientists believe that global warming will release methane from gas hydrates worldwide, most of the current focus has been on deposits in the Arctic. This paper estimates that from 1970 to 2013, some 4 million metric tons of methane has been released from hydrate decomposition off Washington. That’s an amount each year equal to the methane from natural gas released in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon blowout off the coast of Louisiana, and 500 times the rate at which methane is naturally released from the seafloor.

    Dissociation of Cascadia margin gas hydrates in response to contemporary ocean warming
    Geophysical Research Letters | Dec. 5, 2014

    “Methane hydrates are a very large and fragile reservoir of carbon that can be released if temperatures change,” Solomon said. “I was skeptical at first, but when we looked at the amounts, it’s significant.”

    Methane is the main component of natural gas. At cold temperatures and high ocean pressure, it combines with water into a crystal called methane hydrate. The Pacific Northwest has unusually large deposits of methane hydrates because of its biologically productive waters and strong geologic activity. But coastlines around the world hold deposits that could be similarly vulnerable to warming.

    “This is one of the first studies to look at the lower-latitude margin,” Solomon said. “We’re showing that intermediate-depth warming could be enhancing methane release.”
    map of Washington coast

    The yellow dots show all the ocean temperature measurements off the Washington coast from 1970 to 2013. The green triangles are places where scientists and fishermen have seen columns of bubbles. The stars are where the UW researchers took more measurements to check whether the plumes are due to warming water.Una Miller / UW

    Co-author
    Una Miller, a UW oceanography undergraduate, first collected thousands of historic temperature measurements in a region off the Washington coast as part of a separate research project in the lab of co-author Paul Johnson, a UW professor of oceanography. The data revealed the unexpected sub-surface ocean warming signal.

    “Even though the data was raw and pretty messy, we could see a trend,” Miller said. “It just popped out.”

    The four decades of data show deeper water has, perhaps surprisingly, been warming the most due to climate change.

    “A lot of the earlier studies focused on the surface because most of the data is there,” said co-author Susan Hautala, a UW associate professor of oceanography. “This depth turns out to be a sweet spot for detecting this trend.” The reason, she added, is that it lies below water nearer the surface that is influenced by long-term atmospheric cycles.

    The warming water probably comes from the Sea of Okhotsk, between Russia and Japan, where surface water becomes very dense and then spreads east across the Pacific. The Sea of Okhotsk is known to have warmed over the past 50 years, and other studies have shown that the water takes a decade or two to cross the Pacific and reach the Washington coast.

    s
    Map of the Sea of Okhotsk

    “We began the collaboration when we realized this is also the most sensitive depth for methane hydrate deposits,” Hautala said. She believes the same ocean currents could be warming intermediate-depth waters from Northern California to Alaska, where frozen methane deposits are also known to exist.

    m
    The yellow dots show all the ocean temperature measurements off the Washington coast from 1970 to 2013. The green triangles are places where scientists and fishermen have seen columns of bubbles. The stars are where the UW researchers took more measurements to check whether the plumes are due to warming water.Una Miller / UW

    m
    Researchers used a coring machine to gather samples of sediment off Washington’s coast to see if observations match their calculations for warming-induced methane release. The photo was taken in October aboard the UW’s Thomas G. Thompson research vessel.Robert Cannata / UW

    Warming water causes the frozen edge of methane hydrate to move into deeper water. On land, as the air temperature warms on a frozen hillside, the snowline moves uphill. In a warming ocean, the boundary between frozen and gaseous methane would move deeper and farther offshore. Calculations in the paper show that since 1970 the Washington boundary has moved about 1 kilometer – a little more than a half-mile – farther offshore. By 2100, the boundary for solid methane would move another 1 to 3 kilometers out to sea.

    Estimates for the future amount of gas released from hydrate dissociation this century are as high as 0.4 million metric tons per year off the Washington coast, or about quadruple the amount of methane from the Deepwater Horizon blowout each year.

    Still unknown is where any released methane gas would end up. It could be consumed by bacteria in the seafloor sediment or in the water, where it could cause seawater in that area to become more acidic and oxygen-deprived. Some methane might also rise to the surface, where it would release into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas, compounding the effects of climate change.
    researchers on ship

    2
    Evan Solomon (right) and Marta Torres (left, OSU) aboard the UW’s Thomas G. Thompson research vessel in October, with fluid samples from the seafloor that will help answer whether the columns of methane bubbles are due to ocean warming.Robert Cannata / UW

    Researchers now hope to verify the calculations with new measurements. For the past few years, curious fishermen have sent UW oceanographers sonar images showing mysterious columns of bubbles. Solomon and Johnson just returned from a cruise to check out some of those sites at depths where Solomon believes they could be caused by warming water.

    “Those images the fishermen sent were 100 percent accurate,” Johnson said. “Without them we would have been shooting in the dark.”

    Johnson and Solomon are analyzing data from that cruise to pinpoint what’s triggering this seepage, and the fate of any released methane. The recent sightings of methane bubbles rising to the sea surface, the authors note, suggests that at least some of the seafloor gas may reach the surface and vent to the atmosphere.

    The research was funded by the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Department of Energy. The other co-author is Robert Harris at Oregon State University.

    See the full article here.

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    The University of Washington is one of the world’s preeminent public universities. Our impact on individuals, on our region, and on the world is profound — whether we are launching young people into a boundless future or confronting the grand challenges of our time through undaunted research and scholarship. Ranked number 10 in the world in Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings and educating more than 54,000 students annually, our students and faculty work together to turn ideas into impact and in the process transform lives and our world. For more about our impact on the world, every day.

    So what defines us — the students, faculty and community members at the University of Washington? Above all, it’s our belief in possibility and our unshakable optimism. It’s a connection to others, both near and far. It’s a hunger that pushes us to tackle challenges and pursue progress. It’s the conviction that together we can create a world of good. Join us on the journey.

     
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