Everything you ever wanted to know about virtual visualizations

Learn about the application of Google Geo Tools to geoscience education and research through this new book from The Geological Society of America. Volume editors Steven Whitmeyer of James Madison University, John Bailey of the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Declan De Paor of Old Dominion University, and Tina Ornduff of Google Inc. have brought together a massive collection of user-friendly technical information and illustrations for educators, geoscientists, and the interested general public.

The editors and individual chapter authors collectively synthesize the development of and current uses regarding Google Earth and associated visualization media in geoscience education and research. Chapters focus not only on Google Earth but on related tools, such as SketchUp, Google Fusion Tables, GigaPan, and LiDAR. Many of chapters include digital media that illustrate and highlight important themes of the text.

Senior editor Whitmeyer writes that this new addition to GSA’s Penrose Conference Series “is intended to document the state of the art for geoscience applications of geobrowsers, such as Google Earth, along with providing provocative examples of where this technology is headed in the future.”

Some of those provocative examples and intriguing surprises include chapters on “Google Venus,” “Avatars and multi-student interactions in Google Earth-based virtual field experiences,” and “Extreme dynamic mapping: Animals map themselves on the ‘Cloud’.”

Scientists pinpoint great-earthquake hot spots

“We find that 87% of the 15 largest (8.6 magnitude or higher) and half of the 50 largest (8.4 magnitude or higher) earthquakes of the past century are associated with intersection regions between oceanic fracture zones and subduction zones,” says Dietmar Müller, researcher at the University of Sydney in Australia and lead author of the Solid Earth paper. The connection is less striking for smaller earthquakes.

Powerful earthquakes related to these intersection regions include the destructive 2011 Tohoku-Oki and 2004 Sumatra events.

“If the association we found were due to a random data distribution, only about 25% of great subduction earthquakes should coincide with these special tectonic environments. Therefore, we can rule out that the link we found is just due to chance,” he adds.

The researchers considered about 1,500 earthquakes in their study. They used a database of significant post-1900 events, as well as geophysical data mapping fracture zones and subduction zones, among others. They analyzed information from these databases by using a specific data mining method.

“The method was originally developed for analyzing online user data,” says Thomas Landgrebe, also involved in the study. “The technique we apply is commonly used to find a few specific items which are expected to be most appealing to an Internet user. Instead, we use it to find which tectonic environment is most suitable for generating great earthquakes.”

Since earthquake generation is a very complex process, the scientists don’t yet have a complete understanding of why great earthquakes prefer the intersection areas. They suggest that it is due to the physical properties of fracture zones, which result in “strong, persistent coupling in the subduction boundaries,” Landgrebe explains. This means that the subduction fault area is locked and thus capable of accumulating stress over long periods of time.

“The connection we have uncovered provides critical information for seismologists to, in the long run, pinpoint particular tectonic environments that are statistically more prone to strong seismic coupling and great earthquake supercycles,” Müller says. An area with earthquake supercycles experiences recurring powerful earthquakes every few centuries or millennia.

Regions that have long earthquake supercycles are usually not picked up as risk areas by seismic hazard maps as these are constructed mainly using data collected after 1900. An example is the area of the 2011 Tohoku-Oki earthquake, which had no record of large earthquakes over the past century and was not predicted to be of significant risk by previous hazard maps.

“The power of our new method is that it does pick up many of these regions and, hence, could contribute to much-needed improvements of long-term seismic hazard maps,” Müller explains.

“Even though we don’t fully understand the physics of long earthquake cycles, any improvements that can be made using statistical data analysis should be considered as they can help reduce earthquake damage and loss of life.”

Geoscientist cites critical need for basic research to unleash promising energy sources

“There is a critical need for scientists to address basic questions that have hindered the development of emerging energy resources, including geothermal, wind, solar and natural gas, from underground shale formations,” said Mark Zoback, a professor of geophysics at Stanford University. “In this talk we present, from a university perspective, a few examples of fundamental research needs related to improved energy and resource recovery.”

Zoback, an authority on shale gas development and hydraulic fracturing, served on the U.S. Secretary of Energy’s Committee on Shale Gas Development. His remarks will be presented in collaboration with Jeff Tester, an expert on geothermal energy from Cornell University, and Murray Hitzman, a leader in the study of “energy critical elements” from the Colorado School of Mines.

Enhanced geothermal systems

“One option for transitioning away from our current hydrocarbon-based energy system to non-carbon sources is geothermal energy – from both conventional hydrothermal resources and enhanced geothermal systems,” said Zoback, a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford.

Unlike conventional geothermal power, which typically depends on heat from geysers and hot springs near the surface, enhanced geothermal technology has been touted as a major source of clean energy for much of the planet.

The idea is to pump water into a deep well at pressures strong enough to fracture hot granite and other high-temperature rock miles below the surface. These fractures enhance the permeability of the rock, allowing the water to circulate and become hot.

A second well delivers steam back to the surface. The steam is used to drive a turbine that produces electricity with virtually no greenhouse gas emissions. The steam eventually cools and is re-injected underground and recycled to the surface.

In 2006, Tester co-authored a major report on the subject, estimating that 2 percent of the enhanced geothermal resource available in the continental United States could deliver roughly 2,600 times more energy than the country consumes annually.

But enhanced geothermal systems have faced many roadblocks, including small earthquakes that are triggered by hydraulic fracturing. In 2005, an enhanced geothermal project in Basel, Switzerland, was halted when frightened citizens were shaken by a magnitude 3.4 earthquake. That event put a damper on other projects around the world.

Last year, Stanford graduate student Mark McClure developed a computer model to address the problem of induced seismicity.

Instead of injecting water all at once and letting the pressure build underground, McClure proposed reducing the injection rate over time so that the fracture would slip more slowly, thus lowering the seismicity. This novel technique, which received the 2011 best paper award from the journal Geophysics, has to be tested in the field.

Shale gas

Zoback also will also discuss challenges facing the emerging shale gas industry. “The shale gas revolution that has been under way in North America for the past few years has been of unprecedented scale and importance,” he said. “As these resources are beginning to be developed globally, there is a critical need for fundamental research on such questions as how shale properties affect the success of hydraulic fracturing, and new methodologies that minimize the environmental impact of shale gas development.”

Approximately 30,000 shale gas wells have already been drilled in North America, he added, yet fundamental challenges have kept the industry from maximizing its full potential. “The fact is that only 25 percent of the gas is produced, and 75 percent is left behind,” he said. “We need to do a better job of producing the gas and at the same time protecting the environment.”

Earlier this year, Zoback and McClure presented new evidence that in shale gas reservoirs with extremely low permeability, pervasive slow slip on pre-existing faults may be critical during hydraulic fracturing if it is to be effective in stimulating production.

Even more progress is required in extracting petroleum, Zoback added. “The recovery of oil is only around 5 percent, so we need to do more fundamental research on how to get more hydrocarbons out of the ground,” he said. “By doing this better we’ll actually drill fewer wells and have less environmental impact. That will benefit all of the companies and the entire nation.”

Energy critical elements

Geology plays a surprising role in the development of renewable energy resources.

“It is not widely recognized that meeting domestic and worldwide energy needs with renewables, such as wind and solar, will be materials intensive,” Zoback said. “However, elements like platinum and lithium will be needed in significant quantities, and a shortage of such ‘energy critical elements’ could significantly inhibit the adoption of these otherwise game-changing technologies.”

Historically, energy critical elements have been controlled by limited distribution channels, he said. A 2009 study co-authored by Hitzman found that China produced 71 percent of the world’s supply of germanium, an element used in many photovoltaic cells. Germanium is typically a byproduct of zinc extraction, and China is the world’s leading zinc producer.

About 30 elements are considered energy critical, including neodymium, a key component of the magnets used in wind turbines and hybrid vehicles. In 2009, China also dominated the neodymium market.

“How these elements are used and where they’re found are important issues, because the entire industrial world needs access to them,” Zoback said. “Therefore, if we are to sustainably develop renewable energy technologies, it’s imperative to better understand the geology, metallurgy and mining engineering of these critical mineral deposits.”

Unfortunately, he added, there is no consensus among federal and state agencies, the global mining industry, the public or the U.S. academic community regarding the importance of economic geology in securing a sufficient supply of energy critical elements.

Panel discussion

Immediately following the Dec. 4 AGU talk, Zoback will participate in a panel discussion at 5:35 p.m. on the challenges and opportunities for energy and resource recovery. The panel will be led by Joseph Wang of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and will include William Brinkman of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science; Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey; and Jennifer Uhle of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research.

On Wednesday, Dec. 5, at 12:05 p.m., Zoback will deliver another talk on the risk of triggering small-to-moderate size earthquakes during carbon capture and storage.

Carbon capture technology is designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide from industrial smokestacks and sequestering the CO2 in underground reservoirs or mineral deposits.

Zoback will outline several elements of a risk-based strategy for assessing the potential for accidentally inducing earthquakes in carbon dioxide reservoirs. The talk will be held in Room 2004, Moscone Center West.

Geoscientists cite ‘critical need’ for basic research to unleash promising energy resources

Developers of renewable energy and shale gas must overcome fundamental geological and environmental challenges if these promising energy sources are to reach their full potential, according to a trio of leading geoscientists. Their findings will be presented on Dec. 4, at 5:15 p.m. (PT), at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco in Room 102 of Moscone Center West.

“There is a critical need for scientists to address basic questions that have hindered the development of emerging energy resources, including geothermal, wind, solar and natural gas from underground shale formations, ” said Mark Zoback, a professor of geophysics at Stanford University. “In this talk we present, from a university perspective, a few examples of fundamental research needs related to improved energy and resource recovery.”

Zoback, an authority on shale gas development and hydraulic fracturing, served on the U.S. Secretary of Energy’s Committee on Shale Gas Development. His remarks will be presented in collaboration with Jeff Tester, an expert on geothermal energy from Cornell University, and Murray Hitzman, a leader in the study of “energy critical elements” from the Colorado School of Mines.

Enhanced geothermal systems

“One option for transitioning away from our current hydrocarbon-based energy system to non-carbon sources is geothermal energy – from both conventional hydrothermal resources and enhanced geothermal systems,” said Zoback, a senior fellow at the Precourt Institute for Energy at Stanford.

Unlike conventional geothermal power, which typically depends on heat from geysers and hot springs near the surface, enhanced geothermal technology has been touted as a major source of clean energy for much of the planet. The idea is to pump water into a deep well at pressures strong enough to fracture hot granite and other high-temperature rock miles below the surface. These fractures enhance the permeability of the rock, allowing the water to circulate and become hot. A second well delivers steam back to the surface. The steam is used to drive a turbine that produces electricity with virtually no greenhouse gas emissions. The steam eventually cools and is re-injected underground and recycled to the surface.

In 2006, Tester co-authored a major report, which estimated that 2 percent of the enhanced geothermal resource available in the continental United States could deliver roughly 2,600 times more energy than the country consumes annually.

But enhanced geothermal systems have faced many roadblocks, including small earthquakes that are triggered by hydraulic fracturing. In 2005, an enhanced geothermal project in Basel, Switzerland, was halted when frightened citizens were shaken by a magnitude 3.4 earthquake. That event put a damper on other projects around the world.

Last year, Stanford graduate student Mark McClure developed a computer model to address the problem of induced seismicity. Instead of injecting water all at once and letting the pressure build underground, McClure proposed reducing the injection rate over time so that the fracture would slip more slowly, thus lowering the seismicity. This novel technique, which received the 2011 best paper award from the journal GEOPHYSICS, has to be tested in the field.

Shale gas

Zoback also will also discuss challenges facing the emerging shale gas industry. “The shale gas revolution that has been underway in North America for the past few years has been of unprecedented scale and importance,” he said. “As these resources are beginning to be developed globally, there is a critical need for fundamental research on such questions as how shale properties affect the success of hydraulic fracturing, and new methodologies that minimize the environmental impact of shale gas development.”

Approximately 30,000 shale gas wells have already been drilled in North America, he added, yet fundamental challenges have kept the industry from maximizing its full potential. “The fact is that only 25 percent of the gas is produced, and 75 percent is left behind,” he explained. “We need to do a better job of producing the gas and at the same time protecting the environment.”

Earlier this year, Zoback and McClure presented new evidence that in shale gas reservoirs with extremely low permeability, pervasive slow slip on pre-existing faults may be critical during hydraulic fracturing if it is to be effective in stimulating production.

Even more progress is required in extracting petroleum, Zoback added. “The recovery of oil is only around 5 percent, so we need to do more fundamental research on how to get more hydrocarbons out of the ground,” he said. “By doing this better we’ll actually drill fewer wells and have less environmental impact. That will benefit all of the companies and the entire nation.”

Energy critical elements

Geology plays a surprising role in the development of renewable energy resources.

“It is not widely recognized that meeting domestic and worldwide energy needs with renewables, such as wind and solar, will be materials intensive,” Zoback said. “However, elements like platinum and lithium will be needed in significant quantities, and a shortage of such ‘energy critical elements’ could significantly inhibit the adoption of these otherwise game-changing technologies.”

Historically, energy critical elements have been controlled by limited distribution channels, he said. A 2009 study co-authored by Hitzman found that China produced 71 percent of the world’s supply of germanium, an element used in many photovoltaic cells. Germanium is typically a byproduct of zinc extraction, and China is the world’s leading zinc producer. About 30 elements are considered energy critical, including neodymium, a key component of the magnets used in wind turbines and hybrid vehicles. In 2009, China also dominated the neodymium market.

“How these elements are used and where they’re found are important issues, because the entire industrial world needs access to them,” Zoback said. “Therefore, if we are to sustainably develop renewable energy technologies, it’s imperative to better understand the geology, metallurgy and mining engineering of these critical mineral deposits.”

Unfortunately, he added, there is no consensus among federal and state agencies, the global mining industry, the public or the U.S. academic community regarding the importance of economic geology in securing a sufficient supply of energy critical elements.

Panel discussion

Immediately following the Dec. 4 AGU talk, at 5:35 p.m. PT, Zoback will participate in a panel discussion on the challenges and opportunities for energy and resource recovery. The panel will be led by Joseph Wang of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and will include William Brinkman of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science; Marcia McNutt, director of the U.S. Geological Survey; and Jennifer Uhle of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research.

On Dec. 5, at 12:05 p.m. PT, Zoback will deliver another talk on the risk of triggering small-to-moderate size earthquakes during carbon capture and storage – a technology designed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by capturing atmospheric carbon dioxide from industrial smokestacks and sequestering the CO2 in underground reservoirs or mineral deposits. Zoback will outline several elements of a risk-based strategy for assessing the potential for inducing earthquakes in CO2 reservoirs. The talk will be held in Room 2004, Moscone West.

Grand Canyon as old as the dinosaurs, suggests new study

An analysis of mineral grains from the bottom of the western Grand Canyon indicates it was largely carved out by about 70 million years ago — a time when dinosaurs were around and may have even peeked over the rim, says a study led by the University of Colorado Boulder.

The new research pushes back the conventionally accepted date for the formation of the Grand Canyon in Arizona by more than 60 million years, said CU-Boulder Assistant Professor Rebecca Flowers. The team used a dating method that exploits the radioactive decay of uranium and thorium atoms to helium atoms in a phosphate mineral known as apatite, said Flowers, a faculty member in CU-Boulder’s geological sciences department.

The helium atoms were locked in the mineral grains as they cooled and moved closer to the surface during the carving of the Grand Canyon, she said. Temperature variations at shallow levels beneath the Earth’s surface are influenced by topography, and the thermal history recorded by the apatite grains allowed the team to infer how much time had passed since there was significant natural excavation of the Grand Canyon, Flowers said.

“Our research implies that the Grand Canyon was directly carved to within a few hundred meters of its modern depth by about 70 million years ago,” said Flowers. A paper on the subject by Flowers and Professor Kenneth Farley of the California Institute of Technology was published online Nov. 29 in Science magazine.

Flowers said there is significant controversy among scientists over the age and evolution of the Grand Canyon. A variety of data suggest that the Grand Canyon had a complicated history, and the entire modern canyon may not have been carved all at the same time. Different canyon segments may have evolved separately before coalescing into what visitors see today.

In a 2008 study, Flowers and colleagues showed that parts of the eastern section of the Grand Canyon likely developed some 55 million years ago, although the bottom of that ancient canyon was above the height of the current canyon rim at that time before it subsequently eroded to its current depth.

Over a mile deep in places, Arizona’s steeply sided Grand Canyon is about 280 miles long and up to 18 miles wide in places. Visited by more than 5 million people annually, the iconic canyon was likely carved in large part by an ancestral waterway of the Colorado River that was flowing in the opposite direction millions of years ago, said Flowers.

“An ancient Grand Canyon has important implications for understanding the evolution of landscapes, topography, hydrology and tectonics in the western U.S. and in mountain belts more generally,” said Flowers. The study was funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

Whether helium is retained or lost from the individual apatite crystals is a function of temperatures in the rocks of Earth’s crust, she said. When temperatures of the apatite grains are greater than 158 degrees Fahrenheit, no helium is retained in the apatite, while at temperatures below 86 degrees F, all of the helium is retained.

“The main thing this technique allows us to do is detect variations in the thermal structure at shallow levels of the Earth’s crust,” she said. “Since these variations are in part induced by the topography of the region, we obtained dates that allowed us to constrain the timeframe when the Grand Canyon was incised.”

Flowers and Farley took their uranium/thorium/helium dating technique to a more sophisticated level by analyzing the spatial distribution of helium atoms near the margin of individual apatite crystals. “Knowing not just how much helium is present in the grains but also how it is distributed gives us additional information about whether the rocks had a rapid cooling or slow cooling history,” said Flowers.

There have been a number of studies in recent years reporting various ages for the Grand Canyon, said Flowers. The most popular theory places the age of the Grand Canyon at 5 million to 6 million years based on the age of gravel washed downstream by the ancestral Colorado River. In contrast, a 2008 study published in Science estimated the age of the Grand Canyon to be some 17 million years old after researchers dated mineral deposits inside of caves carved in the canyon walls.

Paleontologists believe dinosaurs were wiped out when a giant asteroid collided with Earth 65 million years ago, resulting in huge clouds of dust that blocked the sun’s rays from reaching Earth’s surface, cooling the planet and killing most plants and animals.

Because of the wide numbers of theories, dates and debates regarding the age of the Grand Canyon, geologists have redoubled their efforts, said Flowers. “There has been a resurgence of work on this problem over the past few years because we now have some new techniques that allow us to date rocks that we couldn’t date before,” she said.

While the dating research for the new study was done at Caltech, Flowers recently set up her own lab at CU-Boulder with the ability to conduct uranium/thorium/helium dating.

“If it were simple, I think we would have solved the problem a long time ago,” said Flowers. “But the variety of conflicting information has caused scientists to argue about the age of the Grand Canyon for more than 150 years. I expect that our interpretation that the Grand Canyon formed some 70 million years ago is going to generate a fair amount of controversy, and I hope it will motivate more research to help solve this problem.”

More evidence for an ancient Grand Canyon

For over 150 years, geologists have debated how and when one of the most dramatic features on our planet-the Grand Canyon-was formed. New data unearthed by researchers at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) builds support for the idea that conventional models, which say the enormous ravine is 5 to 6 million years old, are way off.

In fact, the Caltech research points to a Grand Canyon that is many millions of years older than previously thought, says Kenneth A. Farley, Keck Foundation Professor of Geochemistry at Caltech and coauthor of the study. “Rather than being formed within the last few million years, our measurements suggest that a deep canyon existed more than 70 million years ago,” he says.

Farley and Rebecca Flowers-a former postdoctoral scholar at Caltech who is now an assistant professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder-outlined their findings in a paper published in the November 29 issue of Science Express.

Building upon previous research by Farley’s lab that showed that parts of the eastern canyon are likely to be at least 55 million years old, the team used a new method to test ancient rocks found at the bottom of the canyon’s western section. Past experiments used the amount of helium produced by radioactive decay in apatite-a mineral found in the canyon’s walls-to date the samples. This time around, Farley and Flowers took a closer look at the apatite grains by analyzing not only the amount but also the spatial distribution of helium atoms that were trapped within the crystals of the mineral as they moved closer to the surface of the earth during the massive erosion that caused the Grand Canyon to form.

Rocks buried in the earth are hot-with temperatures increasing by about 25 degrees Celsius for every kilometer of depth-but as a river canyon erodes the surface downwards towards a buried rock, that rock cools. The thermal history-shown by the helium distribution in the apatite grains-gives important clues about how much time has passed since there was significant erosion in the canyon.

“If you can document cooling through temperatures only a few degrees warmer than the earth’s surface, you can learn about canyon formation,” says Farley, who is also chair of the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at Caltech.

The analysis of the spatial distribution of helium allowed for detection of variations in the thermal structure at shallow levels of Earth’s crust, says Flowers. That gave the team dates that enabled them to fine-tune the timeframe when the Grand Canyon was incised, or cut.

“Our research implies that the Grand Canyon was directly carved to within a few hundred meters of its modern depth by about 70 million years ago,” she says.

Now that they have narrowed down the “when” of the Grand Canyon’s formation, the geologists plan to continue investigations into how it took shape. The genesis of the canyon has important implications for understanding the evolution of many geological features in the western United States, including their tectonics and topography, according to the team.

“Our major scientific objective is to understand the history of the Colorado Plateau-why does this large and unusual geographic feature exist, and when was it formed,” says Farley. “A canyon cannot form without high elevation-you don’t cut canyons in rocks below sea level. Also, the details of the canyon’s incision seem to suggest large-scale changes in surface topography, possibly including large-scale tilting of the plateau.”

Oceanic crust breakthrough: Solving a magma mystery

Oceanic crust covers two-thirds of the Earth’s solid surface, but scientists still don’t entirely understand the process by which it is made. Analysis of more than 600 samples of oceanic crust by a team including Carnegie’s Frances Jenner reveals a systemic pattern that alters long-held beliefs about how this process works, explaining a crucial step in understanding Earth’s geological deep processes. Their work is published in Nature on November 29.

Magmas generated by melting of the Earth’s mantle rise up below the oceanic crust and erupt on the Earth’s surface at mid-ocean ridge systems, the longest mountain ranges in the world. When the magma cools it forms basalt, the planet’s most-common rock and the basis for oceanic crust.

It has long been assumed that the composition of magmas erupting out of mid-ocean ridges is altered when minerals that form during cooling sink out of the remaining liquid, a process called fractional crystallization. In theory, trace elements that are not included in the crystallizing minerals should be little affected by this process, and their ratios should be the same in the erupting magma as they were in the original magma before cooling.

If this is true, trace element ratios in magmas erupting at mid-ocean ridges should represent those of the original parental magma that formed deep in the Earth’s mantle. However, this process doesn’t account for the high abundance of trace elements found in samples of basalt from mid-ocean ridges around the world, so the reality of the situation is obviously more complicated than previous theories indicated.

Using the extensive array of samples and advanced modeling, Jenner and her research partner Hugh O’Neill of the Australian National University demonstrated that the concentration of trace elements is due to the process by which the magma is cycled through the oceanic crust prior to being erupted on the sea floor at the mid-ocean ridges.

Magma collects under the Earth’s surface in a pool of liquid rock called a magma chamber. Each chamber is frequently flushed with new magma, which mixes with the old magma that was already there, and then this blended magma erupts out onto the ocean floor. Following the influx of new magma and eruption, the remaining magma undergoes fractional crystallization. This means that minerals are separated out from the magma as it cools. However, these minerals contain only minor amounts of the trace elements. As a result, trace elements build up in the magma over time, as the magma chamber is continually replenished by new magma coming in to the system.

“It’s a simple idea, but it fits remarkably well,” Jenner said. “These new findings will permit us to explore the conditions of mantle melting and production of the Earth’s most-common rock.”