Ground-breaking study warns of more great quakes in the Himalayas

A research team led by scientists from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has discovered that massive earthquakes in the range of 8 to 8.5 magnitudes on the Richter scale have left clear ground scars in the central Himalayas.

This ground-breaking discovery has huge implications for the area along the front of the Himalayan Mountains, given that the region has a population density similar to that of New York City.

NTU Professor Paul Tapponnier, who is recognised as a leading scientist in the field of neotectonics, said that the existence of such devastating quakes in the past means that quakes of the same magnitude could happen again in the region in future, especially in areas which have yet to have their surface broken by a temblor.

Published recently in Nature Geosciences, a prestigious scientific journal, the study by NTU’s Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS) and colleagues in Nepal and France showed that in 1255 and 1934, two great earthquakes ruptured the surface of the earth in the Himalayas. This runs contrary to what scientists have previously thought.

Massive earthquakes are not unknown in the Himalayas, as quakes in 1897, 1905, 1934 and 1950 all had magnitudes between 7.8 and 8.9, each causing tremendous damage. But they were previously thought not to have broken the earth’s surface – classified as blind quakes – which are much more difficult to track.

However, Prof Tapponnier said that by combining new high resolution imagery and state of the art dating techniques, they could show that the 1934 earthquake did indeed rupture the surface, breaking the ground over a length of more than 150 kilometres, essentially south of the part of the range that harbours Mt Everest.

This break formed along the main fault in Nepal that currently marks the boundary between the Indian and Asian tectonic plates – also known as the Main Frontal Thrust (MFT) fault.

Using radiocarbon dating of offset river sediments and collapsed hill-slope deposits, the research team managed to separate several episodes of tectonic movement on this major fault and pin the dates of the two quakes, about 7 centuries apart.

“The significance of this finding is that earthquakes of magnitude 8 to 8.5 may return at most twice per millennium on this stretch of the fault, which allows for a better assessment of the risk they pose to the surrounding communities,” said Prof Tapponnier.

Prof Tapponnier warns that the long interval between the two recently discovered earthquake ruptures does not mean people should be complacent, thinking that there is still time before the next major earthquake happens in the region.

“This does not imply that the next mega-earthquake in the Himalayas will occur many centuries from now because we still do not know enough about adjacent segments of the MFT Mega-thrust,” Prof Tapponier explains.

“But it does suggest that areas west or east of the 1934 Nepal ground rupture are now at greater risk of a major earthquake, since there are little or no records of when last earth shattering temblor happened in those two areas.”

The next step for Prof Tapponnier and his EOS scientists is to uncover the full extent of such fault ruptures, which will then allow them to build a more comprehensive model of earthquake hazard along the Himalayan front.

About the NTU’s Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS)

EOS is a premier research institute at NTU which conducts fundamental research on earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunami and climate change in and around Southeast Asia, towards safer and more sustainable societies.

Ground-breaking study warns of more great quakes in the Himalayas

A research team led by scientists from Nanyang Technological University (NTU) has discovered that massive earthquakes in the range of 8 to 8.5 magnitudes on the Richter scale have left clear ground scars in the central Himalayas.

This ground-breaking discovery has huge implications for the area along the front of the Himalayan Mountains, given that the region has a population density similar to that of New York City.

NTU Professor Paul Tapponnier, who is recognised as a leading scientist in the field of neotectonics, said that the existence of such devastating quakes in the past means that quakes of the same magnitude could happen again in the region in future, especially in areas which have yet to have their surface broken by a temblor.

Published recently in Nature Geosciences, a prestigious scientific journal, the study by NTU’s Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS) and colleagues in Nepal and France showed that in 1255 and 1934, two great earthquakes ruptured the surface of the earth in the Himalayas. This runs contrary to what scientists have previously thought.

Massive earthquakes are not unknown in the Himalayas, as quakes in 1897, 1905, 1934 and 1950 all had magnitudes between 7.8 and 8.9, each causing tremendous damage. But they were previously thought not to have broken the earth’s surface – classified as blind quakes – which are much more difficult to track.

However, Prof Tapponnier said that by combining new high resolution imagery and state of the art dating techniques, they could show that the 1934 earthquake did indeed rupture the surface, breaking the ground over a length of more than 150 kilometres, essentially south of the part of the range that harbours Mt Everest.

This break formed along the main fault in Nepal that currently marks the boundary between the Indian and Asian tectonic plates – also known as the Main Frontal Thrust (MFT) fault.

Using radiocarbon dating of offset river sediments and collapsed hill-slope deposits, the research team managed to separate several episodes of tectonic movement on this major fault and pin the dates of the two quakes, about 7 centuries apart.

“The significance of this finding is that earthquakes of magnitude 8 to 8.5 may return at most twice per millennium on this stretch of the fault, which allows for a better assessment of the risk they pose to the surrounding communities,” said Prof Tapponnier.

Prof Tapponnier warns that the long interval between the two recently discovered earthquake ruptures does not mean people should be complacent, thinking that there is still time before the next major earthquake happens in the region.

“This does not imply that the next mega-earthquake in the Himalayas will occur many centuries from now because we still do not know enough about adjacent segments of the MFT Mega-thrust,” Prof Tapponier explains.

“But it does suggest that areas west or east of the 1934 Nepal ground rupture are now at greater risk of a major earthquake, since there are little or no records of when last earth shattering temblor happened in those two areas.”

The next step for Prof Tapponnier and his EOS scientists is to uncover the full extent of such fault ruptures, which will then allow them to build a more comprehensive model of earthquake hazard along the Himalayan front.

About the NTU’s Earth Observatory of Singapore (EOS)

EOS is a premier research institute at NTU which conducts fundamental research on earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, tsunami and climate change in and around Southeast Asia, towards safer and more sustainable societies.

Meteorite triggered scientific gold rush

Qing-Zhu Yin, professor of geology at UC Davis, shows a 5.4-gram meteorite fragment, which was part of the Sutter's Mill meteorite that fell over Northern California on April 22, 2012. Gregory Jorgensen, a UC Davis alum, found the meteorite on his driveway and donated it to UC Davis. -  Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis
Qing-Zhu Yin, professor of geology at UC Davis, shows a 5.4-gram meteorite fragment, which was part of the Sutter’s Mill meteorite that fell over Northern California on April 22, 2012. Gregory Jorgensen, a UC Davis alum, found the meteorite on his driveway and donated it to UC Davis. – Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis

A meteorite that exploded as a fireball over California’s Sierra foothills this past spring was among the fastest, rarest meteorites known to have hit the Earth, and it traveled a highly eccentric orbital route to get here.

An international team of scientists presents these and other findings in a study published Friday, Dec. 21, in the journal Science. The 70-member team included nine researchers from UC Davis, along with scientists from the SETI Institute, NASA and other institutions.

The researchers found that the meteorite that fell over Northern California on April 22 was the rarest type known to have hit the Earth – a carbonaceous chondrite. It is composed of cosmic dust and presolar materials that helped form the planets of the solar system.

The scientists learned that the meteorite formed about 4.5 billion years ago. It was knocked off its parent body, which may have been an asteroid or a Jupiter-family comet, roughly 50,000 years ago. That began its journey to Sutter’s Mill, the gold discovery site that sparked the California Gold Rush.

As it flew toward Earth, it traveled an eccentric course through the solar system, flying from an orbit close to Jupiter toward the sun, passing by Mercury and Venus, and then flying out to hit Earth.

The high-speed, minivan-sized meteorite entered the atmosphere at about 64,000 miles per hour. The study said it was the fastest, “most energetic” reported meteorite that’s fallen since 2008, when an asteroid fell over Sudan.

“If this were a much bigger object, it could have been a disaster,” said co-author and UC Davis geology professor Qing-zhu Yin. “This is a happy story in this case. “

Before entering Earth’s atmosphere, the meteorite is estimated to have weighed roughly 100,000 pounds. Most of that mass burned away when the meteorite exploded. Scientists and private collectors have recovered about 2 pounds remaining.

UC Davis is 60 miles west of the El Dorado county towns of Coloma and Lotus, where pieces of the meteorite were found on residents’ driveways and in local forests and parks.

When the meteorite fell, Yin, whose lab contains some of the country’s most specialized equipment to measure the age and composition of meteorites, searched for and collected pieces of the fallen meteorite with students and volunteers. He also lead a 35-member subgroup of international researchers to study and share information about the meteorite’s mineralogy, internal textures, chemical and isotopic compositions and magnetic properties.

Meteorites like Sutter’s Mill are thought to have delivered oceans of water to the Earth early in its history. Using neutron-computed tomography, UC Davis researchers helped identify where hydrogen, and therefore water-rich fragments, resides in the meteorite without breaking it open.

For the first time, the Doppler weather radar network helped track the falling carbonaceous chondrite meteorite pieces, aiding scientists in the quick recovery of them, the study reports. Yin expects that the weather radar data in the public domain could greatly enhance and benefit future meteorite recoveries on land.

“For me, the fun of this scientific gold rush is really just beginning,” said Yin. “This first report based on the initial findings provides a platform to propel us into more detailed research. Scientists are still finding new and exciting things in Murchison, a similar type of meteorite to Sutter’s Mill, which fell in Victoria, Australia, in 1969, the same year Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin returned the first lunar samples to the Earth. We will learn a lot more with Sutter’s Mill.”

Meteorite triggered scientific gold rush

Qing-Zhu Yin, professor of geology at UC Davis, shows a 5.4-gram meteorite fragment, which was part of the Sutter's Mill meteorite that fell over Northern California on April 22, 2012. Gregory Jorgensen, a UC Davis alum, found the meteorite on his driveway and donated it to UC Davis. -  Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis
Qing-Zhu Yin, professor of geology at UC Davis, shows a 5.4-gram meteorite fragment, which was part of the Sutter’s Mill meteorite that fell over Northern California on April 22, 2012. Gregory Jorgensen, a UC Davis alum, found the meteorite on his driveway and donated it to UC Davis. – Gregory Urquiaga/UC Davis

A meteorite that exploded as a fireball over California’s Sierra foothills this past spring was among the fastest, rarest meteorites known to have hit the Earth, and it traveled a highly eccentric orbital route to get here.

An international team of scientists presents these and other findings in a study published Friday, Dec. 21, in the journal Science. The 70-member team included nine researchers from UC Davis, along with scientists from the SETI Institute, NASA and other institutions.

The researchers found that the meteorite that fell over Northern California on April 22 was the rarest type known to have hit the Earth – a carbonaceous chondrite. It is composed of cosmic dust and presolar materials that helped form the planets of the solar system.

The scientists learned that the meteorite formed about 4.5 billion years ago. It was knocked off its parent body, which may have been an asteroid or a Jupiter-family comet, roughly 50,000 years ago. That began its journey to Sutter’s Mill, the gold discovery site that sparked the California Gold Rush.

As it flew toward Earth, it traveled an eccentric course through the solar system, flying from an orbit close to Jupiter toward the sun, passing by Mercury and Venus, and then flying out to hit Earth.

The high-speed, minivan-sized meteorite entered the atmosphere at about 64,000 miles per hour. The study said it was the fastest, “most energetic” reported meteorite that’s fallen since 2008, when an asteroid fell over Sudan.

“If this were a much bigger object, it could have been a disaster,” said co-author and UC Davis geology professor Qing-zhu Yin. “This is a happy story in this case. “

Before entering Earth’s atmosphere, the meteorite is estimated to have weighed roughly 100,000 pounds. Most of that mass burned away when the meteorite exploded. Scientists and private collectors have recovered about 2 pounds remaining.

UC Davis is 60 miles west of the El Dorado county towns of Coloma and Lotus, where pieces of the meteorite were found on residents’ driveways and in local forests and parks.

When the meteorite fell, Yin, whose lab contains some of the country’s most specialized equipment to measure the age and composition of meteorites, searched for and collected pieces of the fallen meteorite with students and volunteers. He also lead a 35-member subgroup of international researchers to study and share information about the meteorite’s mineralogy, internal textures, chemical and isotopic compositions and magnetic properties.

Meteorites like Sutter’s Mill are thought to have delivered oceans of water to the Earth early in its history. Using neutron-computed tomography, UC Davis researchers helped identify where hydrogen, and therefore water-rich fragments, resides in the meteorite without breaking it open.

For the first time, the Doppler weather radar network helped track the falling carbonaceous chondrite meteorite pieces, aiding scientists in the quick recovery of them, the study reports. Yin expects that the weather radar data in the public domain could greatly enhance and benefit future meteorite recoveries on land.

“For me, the fun of this scientific gold rush is really just beginning,” said Yin. “This first report based on the initial findings provides a platform to propel us into more detailed research. Scientists are still finding new and exciting things in Murchison, a similar type of meteorite to Sutter’s Mill, which fell in Victoria, Australia, in 1969, the same year Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin returned the first lunar samples to the Earth. We will learn a lot more with Sutter’s Mill.”

When the ice melts, the Earth spews fire

In 1991, it was a disaster for the villages nearby the erupting Philippine volcano Pinatubo. But the effects were felt even as far away as Europe. The volcano threw up many tons of ash and other particles into the atmosphere causing less sunlight than usual to reach the Earth’s surface. For the first few years after the eruption, global temperatures dropped by half a degree. In general, volcanic eruptions can have a strong short-term impact on climate. Conversely, the idea that climate may also affect volcanic eruptions on a global scale and over long periods of time is completely new. Researchers at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel (Germany) and Harvard University in Massachusetts (USA) have now found strong evidence for this relationship from major volcanic eruptions around the Pacific Ocean over the past 1 million years. They have presented their results in the latest issue of the international journal “Geology“.

The basic evidence for the discovery came from the work of the Collaborative Research Centre “Fluids and Volatiles in Subduction Zones (SFB 574). For more than ten years the project has been extensively exploring volcanoes of Central America. “Among others pieces of evidence, we have observations of ash layers in the seabed and have reconstructed the history of volcanic eruptions for the past 460,000 years,” says GEOMAR volcanologist Dr Steffen Kutterolf, who has been with SFB 574 since its founding. Particular patterns started to appear. “There were periods when we found significantly more large eruptions than in others” says Kutterolf, the lead author of the Geology article.

After comparing these patterns with the climate history, there was an amazing match. The periods of high volcanic activity followed fast, global temperature increases and associated rapid ice melting. To expand the scope of the discoveries, Dr Kutterolf and his colleagues studied other cores from the entire Pacific region. These cores had been collected as part of the International Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) and its predecessor programmes. They record more than a million years of the Earth’s history. “In fact, we found the same pattern from these cores as in Central America” says geophysicist Dr Marion Jegen from GEOMAR, who also participated in the recent study.

Together with colleagues at Harvard University, the geologists and geophysicists searched for a possible explanation. They found it with the help of geological computer models. “In times of global warming, the glaciers are melting on the continents relatively quickly. At the same time the sea level rises. The weight on the continents decreases, while the weight on the oceanic tectonic plates increases. Thus, the stress changes within in the earth to open more routes for ascending magma” says Dr Jegen.

The rate of global cooling at the end of the warm phases is much slower, so there are less dramatic stress changes during these times. “If you follow the natural climate cycles, we are currently at the end of a really warm phase. Therefore, things are volcanically quieter now. The impact from man-made warming is still unclear based on our current understanding” says Dr Kutterolf. The next step is to investigate shorter-term historical variations to better understand implications for the present day.

When the ice melts, the Earth spews fire

In 1991, it was a disaster for the villages nearby the erupting Philippine volcano Pinatubo. But the effects were felt even as far away as Europe. The volcano threw up many tons of ash and other particles into the atmosphere causing less sunlight than usual to reach the Earth’s surface. For the first few years after the eruption, global temperatures dropped by half a degree. In general, volcanic eruptions can have a strong short-term impact on climate. Conversely, the idea that climate may also affect volcanic eruptions on a global scale and over long periods of time is completely new. Researchers at GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel (Germany) and Harvard University in Massachusetts (USA) have now found strong evidence for this relationship from major volcanic eruptions around the Pacific Ocean over the past 1 million years. They have presented their results in the latest issue of the international journal “Geology“.

The basic evidence for the discovery came from the work of the Collaborative Research Centre “Fluids and Volatiles in Subduction Zones (SFB 574). For more than ten years the project has been extensively exploring volcanoes of Central America. “Among others pieces of evidence, we have observations of ash layers in the seabed and have reconstructed the history of volcanic eruptions for the past 460,000 years,” says GEOMAR volcanologist Dr Steffen Kutterolf, who has been with SFB 574 since its founding. Particular patterns started to appear. “There were periods when we found significantly more large eruptions than in others” says Kutterolf, the lead author of the Geology article.

After comparing these patterns with the climate history, there was an amazing match. The periods of high volcanic activity followed fast, global temperature increases and associated rapid ice melting. To expand the scope of the discoveries, Dr Kutterolf and his colleagues studied other cores from the entire Pacific region. These cores had been collected as part of the International Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (IODP) and its predecessor programmes. They record more than a million years of the Earth’s history. “In fact, we found the same pattern from these cores as in Central America” says geophysicist Dr Marion Jegen from GEOMAR, who also participated in the recent study.

Together with colleagues at Harvard University, the geologists and geophysicists searched for a possible explanation. They found it with the help of geological computer models. “In times of global warming, the glaciers are melting on the continents relatively quickly. At the same time the sea level rises. The weight on the continents decreases, while the weight on the oceanic tectonic plates increases. Thus, the stress changes within in the earth to open more routes for ascending magma” says Dr Jegen.

The rate of global cooling at the end of the warm phases is much slower, so there are less dramatic stress changes during these times. “If you follow the natural climate cycles, we are currently at the end of a really warm phase. Therefore, things are volcanically quieter now. The impact from man-made warming is still unclear based on our current understanding” says Dr Kutterolf. The next step is to investigate shorter-term historical variations to better understand implications for the present day.

Analysis of Marcellus flowback finds high levels of ancient brines

Brine water that flows back from gas wells in the Marcellus Shale region after hydraulic fracturing is many times more salty than seawater, with high contents of various elements, including radium and barium. The chemistry is consistent with brines formed during the Paleozoic era, a study by an undergraduate student and two professors in Penn State’s Department of Geosciences found.

The study indicates that the brine flowback elements found in high levels in the late stages of hydraulic fracturing come from the ancient brines rather than from salts dissolved by the water and chemicals used as part of the fracking process. The paper by Lara O. Haluszczak, a Penn State student who has since graduated; professor emeritus Arthur W. Rose; and Lee R. Kump, professor and head of the Department of Geosciences, detailing those findings has been accepted for publication in Applied Geochemistry, the journal of the International Association of Geochemistry, and is available online.

For the study, the researchers analyzed data primarily from four sources: a report on brines from 40 conventional oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania; data on flowback waters from 22 Marcellus gas wells in Pennsylvania that the state Bureau of Oil and Gas Management had collected; flowback waters from two Marcellus gas wells from a previous study; and an industry study by the Marcellus Shale Coalition on flowback samples from eight horizontal wells that was reported in a Gas Technology Institute report.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process used to release natural gas from the shale formations deep underground. The process involves drilling down thousands of feet and, in the case of horizontal wells, sideways, then injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to release the gas. The paper notes that about a quarter of the volume of fluid used for fracking returns to the surface, but with the brine as a major component.

The paper looked at fluids that flowed back within 90 days of fracking. The samples analyzed in the study come from wells in Pennsylvania, along with two from northern Virginia.

The analysis shows that the brine flowback had extremely high salinity that does not match the chemical composition of the solution put into the wells during the fracking process. Instead, the elements being released are similar to those deposited during the Paleozoic era, hundreds of millions of years ago.

Rose said the naturally occurring radioactive materials being brought to the surface after having been 8,000 feet deep were deposited with formations in that era. He noted that while much attention has been focused on the chemicals that are injected into the shale formation during the fracking process, also of concern is the release of elements such as barium and radium that have been in the ground for millions of years.

“Even if it’s diluted quite a bit, it’s still going to be above the drinking water limits,” Rose said. “There’s been very little research into this.”
Pennsylvania does have regulations on the disposal of fracking fluids. Rose said the findings highlight the importance of re-use and proper disposal of fracking fluids, including those from the later stages of drilling.

“Improper disposal of the flowback can lead to unsafe levels of these and other constituents in water, biota and sediment from wells and streams,” the researchers noted.

“The high salinity and toxicity of these waters must be a key criterion in the technology for disposal of both the flowback waters and the continuing outflow of the production waters,” the paper concludes.

Analysis of Marcellus flowback finds high levels of ancient brines

Brine water that flows back from gas wells in the Marcellus Shale region after hydraulic fracturing is many times more salty than seawater, with high contents of various elements, including radium and barium. The chemistry is consistent with brines formed during the Paleozoic era, a study by an undergraduate student and two professors in Penn State’s Department of Geosciences found.

The study indicates that the brine flowback elements found in high levels in the late stages of hydraulic fracturing come from the ancient brines rather than from salts dissolved by the water and chemicals used as part of the fracking process. The paper by Lara O. Haluszczak, a Penn State student who has since graduated; professor emeritus Arthur W. Rose; and Lee R. Kump, professor and head of the Department of Geosciences, detailing those findings has been accepted for publication in Applied Geochemistry, the journal of the International Association of Geochemistry, and is available online.

For the study, the researchers analyzed data primarily from four sources: a report on brines from 40 conventional oil and gas wells in Pennsylvania; data on flowback waters from 22 Marcellus gas wells in Pennsylvania that the state Bureau of Oil and Gas Management had collected; flowback waters from two Marcellus gas wells from a previous study; and an industry study by the Marcellus Shale Coalition on flowback samples from eight horizontal wells that was reported in a Gas Technology Institute report.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, is the process used to release natural gas from the shale formations deep underground. The process involves drilling down thousands of feet and, in the case of horizontal wells, sideways, then injecting a mixture of water, sand and chemicals to release the gas. The paper notes that about a quarter of the volume of fluid used for fracking returns to the surface, but with the brine as a major component.

The paper looked at fluids that flowed back within 90 days of fracking. The samples analyzed in the study come from wells in Pennsylvania, along with two from northern Virginia.

The analysis shows that the brine flowback had extremely high salinity that does not match the chemical composition of the solution put into the wells during the fracking process. Instead, the elements being released are similar to those deposited during the Paleozoic era, hundreds of millions of years ago.

Rose said the naturally occurring radioactive materials being brought to the surface after having been 8,000 feet deep were deposited with formations in that era. He noted that while much attention has been focused on the chemicals that are injected into the shale formation during the fracking process, also of concern is the release of elements such as barium and radium that have been in the ground for millions of years.

“Even if it’s diluted quite a bit, it’s still going to be above the drinking water limits,” Rose said. “There’s been very little research into this.”
Pennsylvania does have regulations on the disposal of fracking fluids. Rose said the findings highlight the importance of re-use and proper disposal of fracking fluids, including those from the later stages of drilling.

“Improper disposal of the flowback can lead to unsafe levels of these and other constituents in water, biota and sediment from wells and streams,” the researchers noted.

“The high salinity and toxicity of these waters must be a key criterion in the technology for disposal of both the flowback waters and the continuing outflow of the production waters,” the paper concludes.

Antarctic meteorite hunters

For more than 35 years, scientists from the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) program have been scouring glacial landscapes in search of meteorites. Since 1976, teams of physicists, meteorite specialists, and mountaineers have recovered thousands of untouched specimens from meteoroids, the moon and even Mars. Despite subzero temperatures and razor-sharp winds, scientists are lining up for the chance to experience the ultimate hunt for alien objects in the alien environment.

ANSMET teams either conduct systematic searches of a region or work as a scout teams making preliminary investigations of new sites that might be worth further exploration. Once discovered, the meteorites are carefully cataloged in the field and sent to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., where they are distributed to scientists for further research. What secrets will new specimens – locked away in the ice and yet to be discovered – hold about our solar system and the universe? Read the story online and find out at http://bit.ly/UtXc9R.

Read this story and more in the December issue of EARTH Magazine, available online now. Learn how mummification emerged from environmental change; discover the explosive combination of red giants and white dwarfs; and see what states are paying to dispose of low-level radioactive waste all in this month’s issue of EARTH.

Antarctic meteorite hunters

For more than 35 years, scientists from the Antarctic Search for Meteorites (ANSMET) program have been scouring glacial landscapes in search of meteorites. Since 1976, teams of physicists, meteorite specialists, and mountaineers have recovered thousands of untouched specimens from meteoroids, the moon and even Mars. Despite subzero temperatures and razor-sharp winds, scientists are lining up for the chance to experience the ultimate hunt for alien objects in the alien environment.

ANSMET teams either conduct systematic searches of a region or work as a scout teams making preliminary investigations of new sites that might be worth further exploration. Once discovered, the meteorites are carefully cataloged in the field and sent to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., where they are distributed to scientists for further research. What secrets will new specimens – locked away in the ice and yet to be discovered – hold about our solar system and the universe? Read the story online and find out at http://bit.ly/UtXc9R.

Read this story and more in the December issue of EARTH Magazine, available online now. Learn how mummification emerged from environmental change; discover the explosive combination of red giants and white dwarfs; and see what states are paying to dispose of low-level radioactive waste all in this month’s issue of EARTH.