Research blog: An expedition to the Earth’s fiery heart

Volcanic activity on and around La Réunion is driven by a localized upwelling of hot buoyant magma. Unlike most magma sources, this is not located on the boundary between two tectonic plates, and rises from much greater depths. It is a so-called hotspot, and has left behind on the overlying mobile crust a track of volcanic activity that stretches 5500 km northwards to the Deccan Plateau in India. Some 65 million years ago, in a process that had a massive impact on world climate, the Deccan area was covered with enormous amounts of lava as the Indian Plate passed over the hotspot.

Such a long-lived upwelling of hot molten rock, which penetrates the overlying material like a blowtorch, is referred to as a mantle plume. Where exactly mantle plumes originate is the subject of a controversial debate among geoscientists. During the course of a French-German expedition, LMU geophysicist Dr. Karin Sigloch, leader of the German contingent, wants to find out more about the putative plume under La Réunion. The goal is to determine the depth of the plume and to map the conduits by which the magma reaches the Earth’s surface.

The largest plume survey campaign ever

“We want to look deeper into the Earth’s interior than any previous expedition, down to the bottom of the mantle at a depth of about 2900 km; earlier efforts reached half that depth, at most,” says Sigloch. To achieve this goal, the researchers must deploy a dense array of seismometers over a wide area. On 22 September, the team will board the French research vessel Marion Dufresne on a cruise that will place nearly 60 seismometers on the seabed, dispersed over an area of some 4 million km2. As 30 additional instruments will be installed on land, this will be the largest such campaign ever undertaken. Data from a further 70 or so observatories located along the coasts of the Indian Ocean will complement the results obtained with the new network.

The data collected will be used to create three-dimensional tomographic images that will give us a picture of the Earth from the bottom of the crust to the core, and provide new insights into the structure, dynamics and history of the Earth. As they effectively short-circuit the transport of heat from the core to the surface, plumes may play an important role in the Earth’s heat budget, and are a major force in shaping the Earth’s surface. Analysis of the new data will begin in a year’s time, after the German RV Meteor retrieves the newly deployed seismometers from the seabed.

Research blog: An expedition to the Earth’s fiery heart

Volcanic activity on and around La Réunion is driven by a localized upwelling of hot buoyant magma. Unlike most magma sources, this is not located on the boundary between two tectonic plates, and rises from much greater depths. It is a so-called hotspot, and has left behind on the overlying mobile crust a track of volcanic activity that stretches 5500 km northwards to the Deccan Plateau in India. Some 65 million years ago, in a process that had a massive impact on world climate, the Deccan area was covered with enormous amounts of lava as the Indian Plate passed over the hotspot.

Such a long-lived upwelling of hot molten rock, which penetrates the overlying material like a blowtorch, is referred to as a mantle plume. Where exactly mantle plumes originate is the subject of a controversial debate among geoscientists. During the course of a French-German expedition, LMU geophysicist Dr. Karin Sigloch, leader of the German contingent, wants to find out more about the putative plume under La Réunion. The goal is to determine the depth of the plume and to map the conduits by which the magma reaches the Earth’s surface.

The largest plume survey campaign ever

“We want to look deeper into the Earth’s interior than any previous expedition, down to the bottom of the mantle at a depth of about 2900 km; earlier efforts reached half that depth, at most,” says Sigloch. To achieve this goal, the researchers must deploy a dense array of seismometers over a wide area. On 22 September, the team will board the French research vessel Marion Dufresne on a cruise that will place nearly 60 seismometers on the seabed, dispersed over an area of some 4 million km2. As 30 additional instruments will be installed on land, this will be the largest such campaign ever undertaken. Data from a further 70 or so observatories located along the coasts of the Indian Ocean will complement the results obtained with the new network.

The data collected will be used to create three-dimensional tomographic images that will give us a picture of the Earth from the bottom of the crust to the core, and provide new insights into the structure, dynamics and history of the Earth. As they effectively short-circuit the transport of heat from the core to the surface, plumes may play an important role in the Earth’s heat budget, and are a major force in shaping the Earth’s surface. Analysis of the new data will begin in a year’s time, after the German RV Meteor retrieves the newly deployed seismometers from the seabed.

Did a ‘forgotten’ meteor have a deadly, icy double-punch?

When a huge meteor collided with Earth about 2.5 million years ago and fell into the southern Pacific Ocean it not only could have generated a massive tsunami but also may have plunged the world into the Ice Ages, a new study suggests.

A team of Australian researchers says that because the Eltanin meteor – which was up to two kilometers across – crashed into deep water, most scientists have not adequately considered either its potential for immediate catastrophic impacts on coastlines around the Pacific rim or its capacity to destabilize the entire planet’s climate system.

“This is the only known deep-ocean impact event on the planet and it’s largely been forgotten because there’s no obvious giant crater to investigate, as there would have been if it had hit a landmass,” says Professor James Goff, lead author of a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Quaternary Science. Goff is co-director of UNSW’s Australia-Pacific Tsunami Research Centre and Natural Hazards Research Laboratory.

“But consider that we’re talking about something the size of a small mountain crashing at very high speed into very deep ocean, between Chile and Antarctica. Unlike a land impact, where the energy of the collision is largely absorbed locally, this would have generated an incredible splash with waves literally hundreds of meters high near the impact site

“Some modelling suggests that the ensuing mega-tsunami could have been unimaginably large – sweeping across vast areas of the Pacific and engulfing coastlines far inland. But it also would have ejected massive amounts of water vapour, sulphur and dust up into the stratosphere.
“The tsunami alone would have been devastating enough in the short term, but all that material shot so high into the atmosphere could have been enough to dim the sun and dramatically reduce surface temperatures. Earth was already in a gradual cooling phase, so this might have been enough to rapidly accelerate and accentuate the process and kick start the Ice Ages.”

In the paper, Goff and colleagues from UNSW and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, note that geologists and climatologists have interpreted geological deposits in Chile, Antarctica, Australia, and elsewhere as evidence of climatic change, marking the start of the Quaternary period. An alternative interpretation is that some or all of these deposits may be the result of mega-tsunami inundation, the study suggests.

“There’s no doubt the world was already cooling through the mid and late Pliocene,” says co-author Professor Mike Archer. “What we’re suggesting is that the Eltanin impact may have rammed this slow-moving change forward in an instant – hurtling the world into the cycle of glaciations that characterized the next 2.5 million years and triggered our own evolution as a species.

“As a ‘cene’ changer – that is, from the Pliocene to Pleistocene – Eltanin may have been overall as significant as the meteor that took out the non-flying dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We’re urging our colleagues to carefully reconsider conventional interpretations of the sediments we’re flagging and consider whether these could be instead the result of a mega-tsunami triggered by a meteor.”

Did a ‘forgotten’ meteor have a deadly, icy double-punch?

When a huge meteor collided with Earth about 2.5 million years ago and fell into the southern Pacific Ocean it not only could have generated a massive tsunami but also may have plunged the world into the Ice Ages, a new study suggests.

A team of Australian researchers says that because the Eltanin meteor – which was up to two kilometers across – crashed into deep water, most scientists have not adequately considered either its potential for immediate catastrophic impacts on coastlines around the Pacific rim or its capacity to destabilize the entire planet’s climate system.

“This is the only known deep-ocean impact event on the planet and it’s largely been forgotten because there’s no obvious giant crater to investigate, as there would have been if it had hit a landmass,” says Professor James Goff, lead author of a forthcoming paper in the Journal of Quaternary Science. Goff is co-director of UNSW’s Australia-Pacific Tsunami Research Centre and Natural Hazards Research Laboratory.

“But consider that we’re talking about something the size of a small mountain crashing at very high speed into very deep ocean, between Chile and Antarctica. Unlike a land impact, where the energy of the collision is largely absorbed locally, this would have generated an incredible splash with waves literally hundreds of meters high near the impact site

“Some modelling suggests that the ensuing mega-tsunami could have been unimaginably large – sweeping across vast areas of the Pacific and engulfing coastlines far inland. But it also would have ejected massive amounts of water vapour, sulphur and dust up into the stratosphere.
“The tsunami alone would have been devastating enough in the short term, but all that material shot so high into the atmosphere could have been enough to dim the sun and dramatically reduce surface temperatures. Earth was already in a gradual cooling phase, so this might have been enough to rapidly accelerate and accentuate the process and kick start the Ice Ages.”

In the paper, Goff and colleagues from UNSW and the Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation, note that geologists and climatologists have interpreted geological deposits in Chile, Antarctica, Australia, and elsewhere as evidence of climatic change, marking the start of the Quaternary period. An alternative interpretation is that some or all of these deposits may be the result of mega-tsunami inundation, the study suggests.

“There’s no doubt the world was already cooling through the mid and late Pliocene,” says co-author Professor Mike Archer. “What we’re suggesting is that the Eltanin impact may have rammed this slow-moving change forward in an instant – hurtling the world into the cycle of glaciations that characterized the next 2.5 million years and triggered our own evolution as a species.

“As a ‘cene’ changer – that is, from the Pliocene to Pleistocene – Eltanin may have been overall as significant as the meteor that took out the non-flying dinosaurs 65 million years ago. We’re urging our colleagues to carefully reconsider conventional interpretations of the sediments we’re flagging and consider whether these could be instead the result of a mega-tsunami triggered by a meteor.”

Warming ocean could start big shift of Antarctic ice

Fast-flowing and narrow glaciers have the potential to trigger massive changes in the Antarctic ice sheet and contribute to rapid ice-sheet decay and sea-level rise, a new study has found.

Research results published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveal in more detail than ever before how warming waters in the Southern Ocean are connected intimately with the movement of massive ice-sheets deep in the Antarctic interior.

“It has long been known that narrow glaciers on the edge of the Antarctica act as discrete arteries termed ice streams, draining the interior of the ice sheet,” says Dr Chris Fogwill, an author of the study and an ARC Future Fellow with the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre.

“However, our results have confirmed recent observations suggesting that ocean warming can trigger increased flow of ice through these narrow corridors. This can cause inland sectors of the ice-sheet – some larger than the state of Victoria – to become thinner and flow faster.”

The researchers, led by Dr Nicholas Golledge from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, tested high-resolution model simulations against reconstructions of the Antarctic ice sheet from 20,000 years ago, during the last glacial maximum.

They used a new model, capable of resolving responses to ice-streams and other fine- scale dynamic features that interact over the entire ice sheet. This had not previously been possible with existing models. They then used this data to analyze the effects of a warming ocean over time.

The results showed that while glacier acceleration triggered by ocean warming is relatively localized, the extent of the resultant ice-sheet thinning is far more widespread. This observation is particularly important in light of recently observed dynamic changes at the margins of Antarctica. It also highlighted areas that are more susceptible than others to changes in ocean temperatures.

The glaciers that responded most rapidly to warming oceans were found in the Weddell Sea, the Admundsen Sea, the central Ross Sea and in the Amery Trough.

The finding is important because of the enormous scale and potential impact the Antarctic ice sheets could have on sea-level rise if they shift rapidly, says Fogwill. “To get a sense of the scale, the Antarctic ice sheet is 3km deep – three times the height of the Blue Mountains in many areas – and it extends across an area that is equivalent to the distance between Perth and Sydney.

“Despite its potential impact, Antarctica’s effect on future sea level was not fully included in the last IPCC report because there was insufficient information about the behavior of the ice sheet. This research changes that. This new, high-resolution modelling approach will be critical to improving future predictions of Antarctica’s contribution to sea level over the coming century and beyond.”

Warming ocean could start big shift of Antarctic ice

Fast-flowing and narrow glaciers have the potential to trigger massive changes in the Antarctic ice sheet and contribute to rapid ice-sheet decay and sea-level rise, a new study has found.

Research results published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reveal in more detail than ever before how warming waters in the Southern Ocean are connected intimately with the movement of massive ice-sheets deep in the Antarctic interior.

“It has long been known that narrow glaciers on the edge of the Antarctica act as discrete arteries termed ice streams, draining the interior of the ice sheet,” says Dr Chris Fogwill, an author of the study and an ARC Future Fellow with the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre.

“However, our results have confirmed recent observations suggesting that ocean warming can trigger increased flow of ice through these narrow corridors. This can cause inland sectors of the ice-sheet – some larger than the state of Victoria – to become thinner and flow faster.”

The researchers, led by Dr Nicholas Golledge from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, tested high-resolution model simulations against reconstructions of the Antarctic ice sheet from 20,000 years ago, during the last glacial maximum.

They used a new model, capable of resolving responses to ice-streams and other fine- scale dynamic features that interact over the entire ice sheet. This had not previously been possible with existing models. They then used this data to analyze the effects of a warming ocean over time.

The results showed that while glacier acceleration triggered by ocean warming is relatively localized, the extent of the resultant ice-sheet thinning is far more widespread. This observation is particularly important in light of recently observed dynamic changes at the margins of Antarctica. It also highlighted areas that are more susceptible than others to changes in ocean temperatures.

The glaciers that responded most rapidly to warming oceans were found in the Weddell Sea, the Admundsen Sea, the central Ross Sea and in the Amery Trough.

The finding is important because of the enormous scale and potential impact the Antarctic ice sheets could have on sea-level rise if they shift rapidly, says Fogwill. “To get a sense of the scale, the Antarctic ice sheet is 3km deep – three times the height of the Blue Mountains in many areas – and it extends across an area that is equivalent to the distance between Perth and Sydney.

“Despite its potential impact, Antarctica’s effect on future sea level was not fully included in the last IPCC report because there was insufficient information about the behavior of the ice sheet. This research changes that. This new, high-resolution modelling approach will be critical to improving future predictions of Antarctica’s contribution to sea level over the coming century and beyond.”

Challengers to Clovis-age impact theory missed key protocols, new study finds

An interdisciplinary team of scientists from seven U.S. institutions says a disregard of three critical protocols, including sorting samples by size, explains why a group challenging the theory of a North American meteor-impact event some 12,900 years ago failed to find iron- and silica-rich magnetic particles in the sites they investigated.

Not separating samples of the materials into like-sized groupings made for an avoidable layer of difficulty, said co-author Edward K. Vogel, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.

The new independent analysis — published this week in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — did, in fact, isolate large quantities of the “microspherules” at the involved sites where the challengers previously reported none. Lead author Malcolm A. LeCompte, an astrophysicist at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, said the findings support the climate-altering cosmic impact, but his team stopped short of declaring this as proof of the event.

The Clovis-age cosmic-impact theory was proposed in 2007 by a 26-member team led by Richard B. Firestone. That team included University of Oregon archaeologists Douglas J. Kennett and Jon M. Erlandson. While other groups have found corroborating evidence of a potential cosmic event, other groups reported difficulties doing so. One group, led by Todd A Surovell of the University of Wyoming, did not find any microspherule evidence at five of seven sites they tested, including two previously studied locations where Firestone reported large numbers of microspherules.

“In investigating the two common sites and a third tested only by Surovell’s team, we found spherules in equal or greater abundance than did the Firestone team, and the reported enhancement was in strata dated to about 13,000 years before the present,” LeCompte said. “What we’ve done is provide evidence that is consistent with an impact, but we don’t think it proves the impact. We think there’s a mystery contained in the Younger Dryas strata, and that we’ve provided some validation to the original research by Firestone’s group.”

The particles in question, the team concluded, are terrestrial as was claimed by the Firestone group, and not of meteoric origin as claimed by other challengers including Surovell’s group, and are similar to metamorphic material in Earth’s crust. That determination was made using electron microscopy and spectroscopy.

“These spherules have evidence of very high-temperature melting and very rapid cooling, which is characteristic of debris ejected from an impact,” LeCompte said. Speherules would have melted at temperatures approaching 2,000 degrees Celsius (more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit), he added. Cosmic materials, including the some microspherules, regularly fall to earth from space due to meteorite ablation, but the spherules found in soils dating to 13,000 years ago are much different, he added. Other researchers had suggested that these spherules were deposited by a cosmic rain or resulted through slow, terrestrial processes occurring under ambient conditions.

LeCompte and some key collaborators wondered why Surovell didn’t find any spherules, and that led them to Vogel. Many of the spherules investigated were tiny, ranging in size from 20 to 50 micrometers (microns); about the diameter of a human hair.

“The inherent difficulty in finding these small, relatively rare magnetic microspherules suggested there may be inherent limitations in human faculties that needed to be addressed, and that’s how and why we sought out UO Professor Ed Vogel. His research into human cognitive capabilities proved so important in understanding both why the search was so difficult and why size-sorting was effective and important in making it easier,” LeCompte said.

Vogel specializes in the ability of people to find specific items amid multiple distractions.

“A visual search is a very error-prone process,” Vogel said. “This was a case of looking at millions of particles from which you are hoping to find something that might be present much less than 0.1 percent of the time.” Size-sorting, he said, is vital because it is easier to find a target item with a characteristic shape and color when all of the many more-distracting objects are very similar. “It is a slow, tedious process to examine such quantities of materials with the human eyes when object sizes are extremely dissimilar.”

“Science is only as good as the humans who conduct it, and this study shows how the minds of researchers can operate in some surprising ways,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, UO vice president for research and innovation, and dean of the graduate school. “Dr. Vogel’s excellent work, which illustrates the importance of understanding how the human mind processes information and the consequences it can have beyond making everyday computations, reflects the University of Oregon’s strengths in interdisciplinary research.”

LeCompte described Surovell’s study “as possibly the most damning of the reports that had challenged the original theory.”

“Todd had worked very hard and couldn’t find the spherules, but I think he made some fatal errors that need to be pointed out,” LeCompte said. “It is instructive in that we initially made the same mistake and came to the same erroneous conclusion, but then we corrected our mistake. I would say this is a case of a missed opportunity due to their deviations from the protocol.”

Two other critical protocol deviations not followed by the challengers involved the amounts of material examined and the use of microscopy techniques specified in Firestone’s original research. Another two minor aspects of the protocol also were not repeated, reported LeCompte’s team, which, in addition to Vogel, included an archaeologist, two materials scientists, a botanist, a periglacial geographer and an aerospace engineer.

LeCompte’s team — using the protocols of Firestone’s group and electron microscopy — additionally studied a quarry site in Topper, S.C., where Clovis-age people had made stone tools. After removing chert debris associated with tool making in soil at the depth of the Clovis occupation, LeCompte said, researchers observed virtually no spherules below it, while in soil just above the chert fragments they found a spike in the number of telltale spherules.

Further above that level, he noted, the soil layers were essentially “a dead zone” somewhat analogous to the K-T boundary, or “tombstone layer,” from an extinction event that occurred 65 million years ago. At Topper, the dead zone showed almost no trace of human habitation for perhaps as long as 1,000 years duration.

“This suggests that something very dramatic happened,” LeCompte said.

“The effects of such an impact would have been catastrophic on a global scale,” said co-author Barrett Rock, a botanist at the University of New Hampshire. “On the order of 36 ice-age species became extinct, and the Clovis human culture eventually lost. All of this in response to dramatic changes in the vegetation at the base of the faunal food chain.”

Challengers to Clovis-age impact theory missed key protocols, new study finds

An interdisciplinary team of scientists from seven U.S. institutions says a disregard of three critical protocols, including sorting samples by size, explains why a group challenging the theory of a North American meteor-impact event some 12,900 years ago failed to find iron- and silica-rich magnetic particles in the sites they investigated.

Not separating samples of the materials into like-sized groupings made for an avoidable layer of difficulty, said co-author Edward K. Vogel, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon.

The new independent analysis — published this week in the online Early Edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences — did, in fact, isolate large quantities of the “microspherules” at the involved sites where the challengers previously reported none. Lead author Malcolm A. LeCompte, an astrophysicist at Elizabeth City State University in North Carolina, said the findings support the climate-altering cosmic impact, but his team stopped short of declaring this as proof of the event.

The Clovis-age cosmic-impact theory was proposed in 2007 by a 26-member team led by Richard B. Firestone. That team included University of Oregon archaeologists Douglas J. Kennett and Jon M. Erlandson. While other groups have found corroborating evidence of a potential cosmic event, other groups reported difficulties doing so. One group, led by Todd A Surovell of the University of Wyoming, did not find any microspherule evidence at five of seven sites they tested, including two previously studied locations where Firestone reported large numbers of microspherules.

“In investigating the two common sites and a third tested only by Surovell’s team, we found spherules in equal or greater abundance than did the Firestone team, and the reported enhancement was in strata dated to about 13,000 years before the present,” LeCompte said. “What we’ve done is provide evidence that is consistent with an impact, but we don’t think it proves the impact. We think there’s a mystery contained in the Younger Dryas strata, and that we’ve provided some validation to the original research by Firestone’s group.”

The particles in question, the team concluded, are terrestrial as was claimed by the Firestone group, and not of meteoric origin as claimed by other challengers including Surovell’s group, and are similar to metamorphic material in Earth’s crust. That determination was made using electron microscopy and spectroscopy.

“These spherules have evidence of very high-temperature melting and very rapid cooling, which is characteristic of debris ejected from an impact,” LeCompte said. Speherules would have melted at temperatures approaching 2,000 degrees Celsius (more than 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit), he added. Cosmic materials, including the some microspherules, regularly fall to earth from space due to meteorite ablation, but the spherules found in soils dating to 13,000 years ago are much different, he added. Other researchers had suggested that these spherules were deposited by a cosmic rain or resulted through slow, terrestrial processes occurring under ambient conditions.

LeCompte and some key collaborators wondered why Surovell didn’t find any spherules, and that led them to Vogel. Many of the spherules investigated were tiny, ranging in size from 20 to 50 micrometers (microns); about the diameter of a human hair.

“The inherent difficulty in finding these small, relatively rare magnetic microspherules suggested there may be inherent limitations in human faculties that needed to be addressed, and that’s how and why we sought out UO Professor Ed Vogel. His research into human cognitive capabilities proved so important in understanding both why the search was so difficult and why size-sorting was effective and important in making it easier,” LeCompte said.

Vogel specializes in the ability of people to find specific items amid multiple distractions.

“A visual search is a very error-prone process,” Vogel said. “This was a case of looking at millions of particles from which you are hoping to find something that might be present much less than 0.1 percent of the time.” Size-sorting, he said, is vital because it is easier to find a target item with a characteristic shape and color when all of the many more-distracting objects are very similar. “It is a slow, tedious process to examine such quantities of materials with the human eyes when object sizes are extremely dissimilar.”

“Science is only as good as the humans who conduct it, and this study shows how the minds of researchers can operate in some surprising ways,” said Kimberly Andrews Espy, UO vice president for research and innovation, and dean of the graduate school. “Dr. Vogel’s excellent work, which illustrates the importance of understanding how the human mind processes information and the consequences it can have beyond making everyday computations, reflects the University of Oregon’s strengths in interdisciplinary research.”

LeCompte described Surovell’s study “as possibly the most damning of the reports that had challenged the original theory.”

“Todd had worked very hard and couldn’t find the spherules, but I think he made some fatal errors that need to be pointed out,” LeCompte said. “It is instructive in that we initially made the same mistake and came to the same erroneous conclusion, but then we corrected our mistake. I would say this is a case of a missed opportunity due to their deviations from the protocol.”

Two other critical protocol deviations not followed by the challengers involved the amounts of material examined and the use of microscopy techniques specified in Firestone’s original research. Another two minor aspects of the protocol also were not repeated, reported LeCompte’s team, which, in addition to Vogel, included an archaeologist, two materials scientists, a botanist, a periglacial geographer and an aerospace engineer.

LeCompte’s team — using the protocols of Firestone’s group and electron microscopy — additionally studied a quarry site in Topper, S.C., where Clovis-age people had made stone tools. After removing chert debris associated with tool making in soil at the depth of the Clovis occupation, LeCompte said, researchers observed virtually no spherules below it, while in soil just above the chert fragments they found a spike in the number of telltale spherules.

Further above that level, he noted, the soil layers were essentially “a dead zone” somewhat analogous to the K-T boundary, or “tombstone layer,” from an extinction event that occurred 65 million years ago. At Topper, the dead zone showed almost no trace of human habitation for perhaps as long as 1,000 years duration.

“This suggests that something very dramatic happened,” LeCompte said.

“The effects of such an impact would have been catastrophic on a global scale,” said co-author Barrett Rock, a botanist at the University of New Hampshire. “On the order of 36 ice-age species became extinct, and the Clovis human culture eventually lost. All of this in response to dramatic changes in the vegetation at the base of the faunal food chain.”

The mountain in detail, on your mobile

You could almost say that María Teresa Ruiz-Monzón (Vitoria-Gasteiz, Basque Country, 1988) carries the mountain around in her pocket. The slopes, spurs and drops of this mountain are very realistically represented on the mobile phone of this student who has recently graduated in Computer Sciences at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU). This was in fact her end-of-studies project: to develop an application to be able to use 3D geolocation on android smartphones. “It resembles Google Earth, but has a more specific purpose,” she explains. It has been devised for mountaineers so that when it is foggy they can find their way by looking at their mobile phone screens. When the horizon is fuzzy, ordinary maps cannot really help us to position ourselves or to know whether we could be getting too close to a precipice. This 3D application is designed to meet these needs.

Ruiz has had to combine different knowledge, systems and all kinds of data to be able to develop her project. Apart from mastering Android, she has had to incorporate into it certain programs that are compatible with it, like OpenGL ES (graphic programming interface), LaTeX (text processing system) and Shapefile (geodata file format). She has also learnt from videogames to draw the 3D surfaces, and has obtained relief maps and other geographical data on the Basque Autonomous Community (region) over the www.geoeuskadi.net website of the Government of the Basque Autonomous Community. But it is not enough just to gather the most detailed maps; the application has to know where the user is and therefore which map to display to him or her. For this purpose, this computer scientist has made use of the electronic compass available on smartphones: “I use the compass like a camera. I detect which way the phone is looking and I draw the surface existing on that stretch of terrain so that he or she can see what is there.”

Ruiz explains that it has been no easy task creating the surface, managing all the information, detecting the location and managing to download the right files on the basis of all this. But the biggest difficulties were caused by the limited memory capacity of mobile phones: “A lot of information has to be managed and the most difficult thing was to enter all this without exceeding the memory limits of mobile phones.”

Without the Internet

Naturally, this tool needs the Internet to make the appropriate geolocation consultations at each moment, and downloading such large files (running to several Mbytes) over the Internet can take quite a time. To prevent the application crashing in situations like this, Ruiz has been developing a mechanism; it still needs to be improved further, but it is progressing nicely. “The downloads are done in background mode, so the application can go on working even though not all the files may be available. This is so that you can go on using your mobile during the download, too,” she explains.

In any case, it has to be remembered that in the mountains mobiles often end up out of range and in these cases the Internet cannot be used. For this very reason this application has the option of using it without a connection. But in this case, you have to do your homework before setting off: “If you download the files beforehand at home and on a card, it can be done.”

Now that Ruiz has had her viva on her end-of-studies project, she has completed her degree in Computer Sciences but is planning to go on developing the application she has created. “Some minimal improvements have to be made, but I think there could be a possibility of marketing it. I don’t yet know whether I will sell it, whether I will release the code… But there are possibilities. I’ll see,” she says.

The mountain in detail, on your mobile

You could almost say that María Teresa Ruiz-Monzón (Vitoria-Gasteiz, Basque Country, 1988) carries the mountain around in her pocket. The slopes, spurs and drops of this mountain are very realistically represented on the mobile phone of this student who has recently graduated in Computer Sciences at the University of the Basque Country (UPV/EHU). This was in fact her end-of-studies project: to develop an application to be able to use 3D geolocation on android smartphones. “It resembles Google Earth, but has a more specific purpose,” she explains. It has been devised for mountaineers so that when it is foggy they can find their way by looking at their mobile phone screens. When the horizon is fuzzy, ordinary maps cannot really help us to position ourselves or to know whether we could be getting too close to a precipice. This 3D application is designed to meet these needs.

Ruiz has had to combine different knowledge, systems and all kinds of data to be able to develop her project. Apart from mastering Android, she has had to incorporate into it certain programs that are compatible with it, like OpenGL ES (graphic programming interface), LaTeX (text processing system) and Shapefile (geodata file format). She has also learnt from videogames to draw the 3D surfaces, and has obtained relief maps and other geographical data on the Basque Autonomous Community (region) over the www.geoeuskadi.net website of the Government of the Basque Autonomous Community. But it is not enough just to gather the most detailed maps; the application has to know where the user is and therefore which map to display to him or her. For this purpose, this computer scientist has made use of the electronic compass available on smartphones: “I use the compass like a camera. I detect which way the phone is looking and I draw the surface existing on that stretch of terrain so that he or she can see what is there.”

Ruiz explains that it has been no easy task creating the surface, managing all the information, detecting the location and managing to download the right files on the basis of all this. But the biggest difficulties were caused by the limited memory capacity of mobile phones: “A lot of information has to be managed and the most difficult thing was to enter all this without exceeding the memory limits of mobile phones.”

Without the Internet

Naturally, this tool needs the Internet to make the appropriate geolocation consultations at each moment, and downloading such large files (running to several Mbytes) over the Internet can take quite a time. To prevent the application crashing in situations like this, Ruiz has been developing a mechanism; it still needs to be improved further, but it is progressing nicely. “The downloads are done in background mode, so the application can go on working even though not all the files may be available. This is so that you can go on using your mobile during the download, too,” she explains.

In any case, it has to be remembered that in the mountains mobiles often end up out of range and in these cases the Internet cannot be used. For this very reason this application has the option of using it without a connection. But in this case, you have to do your homework before setting off: “If you download the files beforehand at home and on a card, it can be done.”

Now that Ruiz has had her viva on her end-of-studies project, she has completed her degree in Computer Sciences but is planning to go on developing the application she has created. “Some minimal improvements have to be made, but I think there could be a possibility of marketing it. I don’t yet know whether I will sell it, whether I will release the code… But there are possibilities. I’ll see,” she says.