New report details more geoscience job opportunities than students

This image graphs industries hiring geoscience degree graduates by bachelors, masters and doctoral degree brackets. -  Carolyn Wilson:
This image graphs industries hiring geoscience degree graduates by bachelors, masters and doctoral degree brackets. – Carolyn Wilson:

In the American Geosciences Institute’s newest Status of the Geoscience Workforce Report, released May 2014, jobs requiring training in the geosciences continue to be lucrative and in-demand. Even with increased enrollment and graduation from geoscience programs, the data still project a shortage of around 135,000 geoscientists needed in the workforce by the end of the decade.

“Industry has recognized, and is mitigating the upcoming shortage of skilled geoscientists in their employ, but the federal geoscience workforce is still demonstrably shrinking” report author Carolyn Wilson said, noting that the federal geoscience workforce decreased in all sectors except meteorology; this includes geoscientists skilled in the energy, mining/minerals and hydrology fields. Combined with continued unevenness is the workforce readiness of many geoscience graduates and a regionally hot job market, the geosciences are a dynamic component of the U.S. economy.

Employers have appreciably skilled geoscientists to choose from too. Numbers of graduating geoscience majors who started their degrees at a two-year colleges have increased, as have the number of students participating in a field camp experiences-an important facet of a geoscience degree, where students get experience interpreting the landforms critical to determining where energy or water resources exist, as well as interpreting locations susceptible to hazards like flooding or landslides. Most students graduating from a geoscience degree program have taken math courses up to a calculus-II level, but there is still concern from employers over whether these students are graduating with enough quantitative experience to be completely apt for a career in the geosciences.

Employers underscore the necessity of having enough skilled grads to meet vacancies that will exist in the geoscience sector in the upcoming decades.

“It’s important that working knowledge is passed down because losing the institutional knowledge could have negative impacts for the overall productivity of these companies.” Wilson said.

“Most importantly there is incredible potential for institutions to recruit from the diverse talent pools arising at two year institutions, and many career opportunities available to students enrolled in geoscience programs, and early-career geoscientists entering the workforce,” Wilson said. “Plus, this is the first time we have seen a major shift in employment patterns in over a generation, with increasing number of bachelor recipients securing geoscience positions, and newly minted Master’s finding themselves in high demand.”

New study finds Antarctic Ice Sheet unstable at end of last ice age

This is one of many icebergs that sheared off the continent and ended up in the Scotia Sea. -  Photo courtesy of Michael Weber, University of Cologne
This is one of many icebergs that sheared off the continent and ended up in the Scotia Sea. – Photo courtesy of Michael Weber, University of Cologne

A new study has found that the Antarctic Ice Sheet began melting about 5,000 years earlier than previously thought coming out of the last ice age – and that shrinkage of the vast ice sheet accelerated during eight distinct episodes, causing rapid sea level rise.

The international study, funded in part by the National Science Foundation, is particularly important coming on the heels of recent studies that suggest destabilization of part of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has begun.

Results of this latest study are being published this week in the journal Nature. It was conducted by researchers at University of Cologne, Oregon State University, the Alfred-Wegener-Institute, University of Hawaii at Manoa, University of Lapland, University of New South Wales, and University of Bonn.

The researchers examined two sediment cores from the Scotia Sea between Antarctica and South America that contained “iceberg-rafted debris” that had been scraped off Antarctica by moving ice and deposited via icebergs into the sea. As the icebergs melted, they dropped the minerals into the seafloor sediments, giving scientists a glimpse at the past behavior of the Antarctic Ice Sheet.

Periods of rapid increases in iceberg-rafted debris suggest that more icebergs were being released by the Antarctic Ice Sheet. The researchers discovered increased amounts of debris during eight separate episodes beginning as early as 20,000 years ago, and continuing until 9,000 years ago.

The melting of the Antarctic Ice Sheet wasn’t thought to have started, however, until 14,000 years ago.

“Conventional thinking based on past research is that the Antarctic Ice Sheet has been relatively stable since the last ice age, that it began to melt relatively late during the deglaciation process, and that its decline was slow and steady until it reached its present size,” said lead author Michael Weber, a scientist from the University of Cologne in Germany.

“The sediment record suggests a different pattern – one that is more episodic and suggests that parts of the ice sheet repeatedly became unstable during the last deglaciation,” Weber added.

The research also provides the first solid evidence that the Antarctic Ice Sheet contributed to what is known as meltwater pulse 1A, a period of very rapid sea level rise that began some 14,500 years ago, according to Peter Clark, an Oregon State University paleoclimatologist and co-author on the study.

The largest of the eight episodic pulses outlined in the new Nature study coincides with meltwater pulse 1A.

“During that time, the sea level on a global basis rose about 50 feet in just 350 years – or about 20 times faster than sea level rise over the last century,” noted Clark, a professor in Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “We don’t yet know what triggered these eight episodes or pulses, but it appears that once the melting of the ice sheet began it was amplified by physical processes.”

The researchers suspect that a feedback mechanism may have accelerated the melting, possibly by changing ocean circulation that brought warmer water to the Antarctic subsurface, according to co-author Axel Timmermann, a climate researcher at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.

“This positive feedback is a perfect recipe for rapid sea level rise,” Timmermann said.

Some 9,000 years ago, the episodic pulses of melting stopped, the researchers say.

“Just as we are unsure of what triggered these eight pulses,” Clark said, “we don’t know why they stopped. Perhaps the sheet ran out of ice that was vulnerable to the physical changes that were taking place. However, our new results suggest that the Antarctic Ice Sheet is more unstable than previously considered.”

Today, the annual calving of icebergs from Antarctic represents more than half of the annual loss of mass of the Antarctic Ice Sheet – an estimated 1,300 to 2,000 gigatons (a gigaton is a billion tons). Some of these giant icebergs are longer than 18 kilometers.

Lower mantle chemistry breakthrough

Breaking research news from a team of scientists led by Carnegie’s Ho-kwang “Dave” Mao reveals that the composition of the Earth’s lower mantle may be significantly different than previously thought. These results are to be published by Science.

The lower mantle comprises 55 percent of the planet by volume and extends from 670 and 2900 kilometers in depth, as defined by the so-called transition zone (top) and the core-mantle boundary (below). Pressures in the lower mantle start at 237,000 times atmospheric pressure (24 gigapascals) and reach 1.3 million times atmospheric pressure (136 gigapascals) at the core-mantle boundary.

The prevailing theory has been that the majority of the lower mantle is made up of a single ferromagnesian silicate mineral, commonly called perovskite (Mg,Fe)SiO3) defined through its chemistry and structure. It was thought that perovskite didn’t change structure over the enormous range of pressures and temperatures spanning the lower mantle.

Recent experiments that simulate the conditions of the lower mantle using laser-heated diamond anvil cells, at pressures between 938,000 and 997,000 times atmospheric pressure (95 and 101 gigapascals) and temperatures between 3,500 and 3,860 degrees Fahrenheit (2,200 and 2,400 Kelvin), now reveal that iron bearing perovskite is, in fact, unstable in the lower mantle.

The team finds that the mineral disassociates into two phases one a magnesium silicate perovskite missing iron, which is represented by the Fe portion of the chemical formula, and a new mineral, that is iron-rich and hexagonal in structure, called the H-phase. Experiments confirm that this iron-rich H-phase is more stable than iron bearing perovskite, much to everyone’s surprise. This means it is likely a prevalent and previously unknown species in the lower mantle. This may change our understanding of the deep Earth.

“We still don’t fully understand the chemistry of the H-phase,” said lead author Li Zhang, also of Carnegie. “But this finding indicates that all geodynamic models need to be reconsidered to take the H-phase into account. And there could be even more unidentified phases down there in the lower mantle as well, waiting to be identified.”

The next ‘Big One’ for the Bay Area may be a cluster of major quakes

A cluster of closely timed earthquakes over 100 years in the 17th and 18th centuries released as much accumulated stress on San Francisco Bay Area’s major faults as the Great 1906 San Francisco earthquake, suggesting two possible scenarios for the next “Big One” for the region, according to new research published by the Bulletin of the Seismological Society of America (BSSA).

“The plates are moving,” said David Schwartz, a geologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and co-author of the study. “The stress is re-accumulating, and all of these faults have to catch up. How are they going to catch up?”

The San Francisco Bay Region (SFBR) is considered within the boundary between the Pacific and North American plates. Energy released during its earthquake cycle occurs along the region’s principal faults: the San Andreas, San Gregorio, Calaveras, Hayward-Rodgers Creek, Greenville, and Concord-Green Valley faults.

“The 1906 quake happened when there were fewer people, and the area was much less developed,” said Schwartz. “The earthquake had the beneficial effect of releasing the plate boundary stress and relaxing the crust, ushering in a period of low level earthquake activity.”

The earthquake cycle reflects the accumulation of stress, its release as slip on a fault or a set of faults, and its re-accumulation and re-release. The San Francisco Bay Area has not experienced a full earthquake cycle since its been occupied by people who have reported earthquake activity, either through written records or instrumentation. Founded in 1776, the Mission Dolores and the Presidio in San Francisco kept records of felt earthquakes and earthquake damage, marking the starting point for the historic earthquake record for the region.

“We are looking back at the past to get a more reasonable view of what’s going to happen decades down the road,” said Schwartz. “The only way to get a long history is to do these paleoseismic studies, which can help construct the rupture histories of the faults and the region. We are trying to see what went on and understand the uncertainties for the Bay Area.”

Schwartz and colleagues excavated trenches across faults, observing past surface ruptures from the most recent earthquakes on the major faults in the area. Radiocarbon dating of detrital charcoal and the presence of non-native pollen established the dates of paleoearthquakes, expanding the span of information of large events back to 1600.

The trenching studies suggest that between 1690 and the founding of the Mission Dolores and Presidio in 1776, a cluster of earthquakes ranging from magnitude 6.6 to 7.8 occurred on the Hayward fault (north and south segments), San Andreas fault (North Coast and San Juan Bautista segments), northern Calaveras fault, Rodgers Creek fault, and San Gregorio fault. There are no paleoearthquake data for the Greenville fault or northern extension of the Concord-Green Valley fault during this time interval.

“What the cluster of earthquakes did in our calculations was to release an amount of energy somewhat comparable to the amount released in the crust by the 1906 quake,” said Schwartz.

As stress on the region accumulates, the authors see at least two modes of energy release – one is a great earthquake and other is a cluster of large earthquakes. The probability for how the system will rupture is spread out over all faults in the region, making a cluster of large earthquakes more likely than a single great earthquake.

“Everybody is still thinking about a repeat of the 1906 quake,” said Schwartz. “It’s one thing to have a 1906-like earthquake where seismic activity is shut off, and we slide through the next 110 years in relative quiet. But what happens if every five years we get a magnitude 6.8 or 7.2? That’s not outside the realm of possibility.”

On the shoulder of a giant: Precursor volcano to the island of O’ahu discovered

Map showing schematically the distribution of the three volcanoes now thought to have made up the region of O'ahu, Hawai'i.  From oldest to youngest these are the Ka'ena, Wai'anae, and Ko'olau Volcanoes.  Upper panel: bold dashed lines delineate possible rift zones of the three volcanoes; also shown are the major landslide deposits around O'ahu.  The lower panel shows how the three volcanic edifices overlap. -  J. Sinton, et al., UH SOEST
Map showing schematically the distribution of the three volcanoes now thought to have made up the region of O’ahu, Hawai’i. From oldest to youngest these are the Ka’ena, Wai’anae, and Ko’olau Volcanoes. Upper panel: bold dashed lines delineate possible rift zones of the three volcanoes; also shown are the major landslide deposits around O’ahu. The lower panel shows how the three volcanic edifices overlap. – J. Sinton, et al., UH SOEST

Researchers from the University of Hawai’i – Mānoa (UHM), Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de L’Environment (France), and Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute recently discovered that O’ahu actually consists of three major Hawaiian shield volcanoes, not two, as previously thought. The island of O’ahu, as we know it today, is the remnants of two volcanoes, Wai’anae and Ko’olau. But extending almost 100 km WNW from Ka’ena Point, the western tip of the island of O’ahu, is a large region of shallow bathymetry, called the submarine Ka’ena Ridge. It is that region that has now been recognized to represent a precursor volcano to the island of O’ahu, and on whose flanks the Wai’anae and Ko’olau Volcanoes later formed.

Prior to the recognition of Ka’ena Volcano, Wai’anae Volcano was assumed to have been exceptionally large and to have formed an unusually large distance from its next oldest neighbor – Kaua’i. “Both of these assumptions can now be revised: Wai’anae is not as large as previously thought and Ka’ena Volcano formed in the region between Kauai and Wai’anae,” noted John Sinton, lead author of the study and Emeritus Professor of Geology and Geophysics at the UHM School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST).

In 2010 scientists documented enigmatic chemistry of some unusual lavas of Wai’anae. “We previously knew that they formed by partial melting of the crust beneath Wai’anae, but we didn’t understand why they have the isotopic composition that they do,” said Sinton” Now, we realize that the deep crust that melted under Waianae is actually part of the earlier Ka’ena Volcano.”

This new understanding has been a long time in the making. Among the most important developments was the acquisition of high-quality bathymetric data of the seafloor in the region. This mapping was greatly accelerated after UH acquired the Research Vessel Kilo Moana, equipped with a high-resolution mapping system. The new data showed that Ka’ena Ridge had an unusual morphology, unlike that of submarine rift zone extensions of on-land volcanoes. Researchers then began collecting samples from Ka’ena and Wai’alu submarine Ridges. The geochemical and age data, along with geological observations and geophysical data confirmed that Ka’ena was not part of Waianae, but rather was an earlier volcanic edifice; Wai’anae must have been built on the flanks of Ka’ena.

“What is particularly interesting is that Ka’ena appears to have had an unusually prolonged history as a submarine volcano, only breaching the ocean surface very late in its history,” said Sinton. Much of our knowledge of Hawaiian volcanoes is based on those that rise high above sea level, and almost all of those formed on the flanks of earlier ones. Ka’ena represents a chance to study a Hawaiian volcano that formed in isolation on the deep ocean floor.

Despite four different cruises and nearly 100 rock samples from Ka’ena, researchers say they have only begun to observe and sample this massive volcanic edifice. While this article was in press, SOEST scientists visited Ka’ena Ridge again – this time with the UH’s newest remotely operated vehicle, ROV Lu’ukai – and collected new rock samples from some of its shallowest peaks. With these new samples Sinton and colleagues hope to constrain the timing of the most recent volcanism on Ka’ena.

Goldschmidt — the world’s biggest Geochemistry conference, Sacramento (CA), 8-13 June

Goldschmidt2014 is due to take place in Sacramento, California from 8th to 13th June, 2014, and journalists are welcome to attend.

Following on the success of the 2013 conference in Florence, this year we are planning more headline-making stories about the science behind geochemistry and how this affects the real world.

The conference will feature sessions on a variety of newsworthy topics, including:

  • Cosmochemistry and Planetary Chemistry

  • Early Earth
  • Geochemistry of Volcanic Systems and Natural Hazards
  • Climate Change: Past, Present, and Future
  • Weathering, Climate, Tectonics and Surface Processes

Comet theory false; doesn’t explain Ice Age cold snap, Clovis changes, animal extinction

Controversy over what sparked the Younger Dryas, a brief return to near glacial conditions at the end of the Ice Age, includes a theory that it was caused by a comet hitting the Earth.

As proof, proponents point to sediments containing deposits they believe could result only from a cosmic impact.

Now a new study disproves that theory, said archaeologist David Meltzer, Southern Methodist University, Dallas. Meltzer is lead author on the study and an expert in the Clovis culture, the peoples who lived in North America at the end of the Ice Age.

Meltzer’s research team found that nearly all sediment layers purported to be from the Ice Age at 29 sites in North America and on three other continents are actually either much younger or much older.

Scientists agree that the brief episode at the end of the Ice Age – officially known as the Younger Dryas for a flower that flourished at that time – sparked widespread cooling of the Earth 12,800 years ago and that this cool period lasted for 1,000 years. But theories about the cause of this abrupt climate change are numerous. They range from changes in ocean circulation patterns caused by glacial meltwater entering the ocean to the cosmic-impact theory.

The cosmic-impact theory is said to be supported by the presence of geological indicators that are extraterrestrial in origin. However a review of the dating of the sediments at the 29 sites reported to have such indicators proves the cosmic-impact theory false, said Meltzer.

Meltzer and his co-authors found that only three of 29 sites commonly referenced to support the cosmic-impact theory actually date to the window of time for the Ice Age.

The findings, “Chronological evidence fails to support claim of an isochronous widespread layer of cosmic impact indicators dated to 12,800 years ago,” were reported May 12, 2014, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Co-authors were Vance T. Holliday and D. Shane Miller, both from the University of Arizona; and Michael D. Cannon, SWCA Environmental Consultants Inc., Salt Lake City, Utah.

“The supposed impact markers are undated or significantly older or younger than 12,800 years ago,” report the authors. “Either there were many more impacts than supposed, including one as recently as 5 centuries ago, or, far more likely, these are not extraterrestrial impact markers.”

Dating of purported Younger Dryas sites proves unreliable

The Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis rests heavily on the claim that there is a Younger Dryas boundary layer at 29 sites in the Americas and elsewhere that contains deposits of supposed extraterrestrial origin that date to a 300-year span centered on 12,800 years ago.

The deposits include magnetic grains with iridium, magnetic microspherules, charcoal, soot, carbon spherules, glass-like carbon containing nanodiamonds, and fullerenes with extraterrestrial helium, all said to result from a comet or other cosmic event hitting the Earth.

Meltzer and his colleagues tested that hypothesis by investigating the existing stratigraphic and chronological data sets reported in the published scientific literature and accepted as proof by cosmic-impact proponents, to determine if these markers dated to the onset of the Younger Dryas.

They sorted the 29 sites by the availability of radiometric or numeric ages and then the type of age control, if available, and whether the age control is secure.

The researchers found that three sites lack absolute age control: at Chobot, Alberta, the three Clovis points found lack stratigraphic context, and the majority of other diagnostic artifacts are younger than Clovis by thousands of years; at Morley, Alberta, ridges are assumed without evidence to be chronologically correlated with Ice Age hills 2,600 kilometers away; and at Paw Paw Cove, Maryland, horizontal integrity of the Clovis artifacts found is compromised, according to that site’s principal archaeologist.

The remaining 26 sites have radiometric or other potential numeric ages, but only three date to the Younger Dryas boundary layer.

At eight of those sites, the ages are unrelated to the supposed Younger Dryas boundary layer, as for example at Gainey, Michigan, where extensive stratigraphic mixing of artifacts found at the site makes it impossible to know their position to the supposed Younger Dryas boundary layer. Where direct dating did occur, it’s sometime after the 16th century A.D.

At Wally’s Beach, Alberta, a radiocarbon age of 10,980 purportedly dates extraterrestrial impact markers from sediment in the skull of an extinct horse. In actuality, the date is from an extinct musk ox, and the fossil yielding the supposed impact markers was not dated, nor is there evidence to suggest that the fossils from Wally’s Beach are all of the same age or date to the Younger Dryas onset.

At nearly a dozen other sites, the authors report, the chronological results are neither reliable nor valid as a result of significant statistical flaws in the analysis, the omission of ages from the models, and the disregard of statistical uncertainty that accompanies all radiometric dates.

For example, at Lake Cuitzeo, Mexico, Meltzer and his team used the data of previous researchers and applied a fifth-order polynomial regression, but it returned a different equation that put the cosmic-impact markers at a depth well above that which would mark the Younger Dryas onset.

The authors go on to point out that inferences about the ages of supposed Younger Dryas boundary layers are unsupported by replication in more cases than not.

In North America, the Ice Age was marked by the mass extinction of several dozen genera of large mammals, including mammoths, mastodons, American horses, Western camels, two types of deer, ancient bison, giant beaver, giant bears, sabre-toothed cats, giant bears, American cheetahs, and many other animals, as well as plants.

Against the current with lava flows

<IMG SRC="/Images/38239538.jpg" WIDTH="350" HEIGHT="233" BORDER="0" ALT="A pit chain marks a subterranean lava tunnel. Its roof collapsed partially. – Image: Mars Image Explorer /“>
A pit chain marks a subterranean lava tunnel. Its roof collapsed partially. – Image: Mars Image Explorer /

An Italian astronomer in the 19th century first described them as ‘canali’ – on Mars’ equatorial region, a conspicuous net-like system of deep gorges known as the Noctis Labyrinthus is clearly visible. The gorge system, in turn, leads into another massive canyon, the Valles Marineris, which is 4,000 km long, 200 km wide and 7 km deep. Both of these together would span the US completely from east to west.

As these gorges, when observed from orbit, resemble terrestrial canyons formed by water, most researchers assumed that immense flows of water must have carved the Noctis Labyrinthus and the Valles Marineris into the surface of Mars. Another possibility was that tectonic activity had created the largest rift valley on a planet in our solar system.

Lava flows caused the gorges

These assumptions were far from the mark, says Giovanni Leone, a specialist in planetary volcanism in the research group of ETH professor Paul Tackley. Only lava flows would have had the force and mass required to carve these gigantic gorges into the surface of Mars. The study was recently published in the Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research.

In recent years, Leone has examined intensively the structure of these canyons and their outlets into the Ares Vallis and the Chryse Planitia, a massive plain on Mars’ low northern latitude. He examined thousands of high-resolution surface images taken by numerous Mars probes, including the latest from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, and which are available on the image databases of the US Geological Survey.

No discernible evidence of erosion by water

His conclusion is unequivocal: “Everything that I observed on those images were structures of lava flows as we know them on Earth,” he emphasises. “The typical indicators of erosion by water were not visible on any of them.” Leone therefore does not completely rules out water as final formative force. Evidence of water, such as salt deposits in locations where water evaporated from the ground or signs of erosion on the alluvial fans of the landslides, are scarce but still existing. “One must therefore ask oneself seriously how Valles Marineris could have been created by water if one can not find any massive and widespread evidence of it.” The Italian volcanologist similarly could find no explanation as to where the massive amounts of water that would be required to form such canyons might have originated.

Source region of lava flows identified

The explanatory model presented by Leone in his study illustrates the formation history from the source to the outlet of the gorge system. He identifies the volcanic region of Tharsis as the source region of the lava flows and from there initial lava tubes stretched to the edge of the Noctis Labyrinthus. When the pressure from an eruption subsided, some of the tube ceilings collapsed, leading to the formation of a chain of almost circular holes, the ‘pit chains’.

When lava flowed again through the tubes, the ceilings collapsed entirely, forming deep V-shaped troughs. Due to the melting of ground and rim material, and through mechanical erosion, the mass of lava carved an ever-deeper and broader bed to form canyons. The destabilised rims then slipped and subsequent lava flows carried away the debris from the landslides or covered it. “The more lava that flowed, the wider the canyon became,” says Leone.

Leone supported his explanatory model with height measurements from various Mars probes. The valleys of the Noctis Labyrinthus manifest the typical V-shape of ‘young’ lava valleys where the tube ceilings have completely collapsed. The upper rims of these valleys, however, have the same height. If tectonic forces had been at work, they would not be on the same level, he says. The notion of water as the formative force, in turn, is undermined by the fact that it would have taken tens of millions of cubic kilometres of water to carve such deep gorges and canyons. Practically all the atmospheric water of all the ages of Mars should have been concentrated only on Labyrinthus Noctis. Moreover, the atmosphere on Mars is too thin and the temperatures too cold. Water that came to the surface wouldn’t stay liquid, he notes: “How could a river of sufficient force and size even form?”

Life less likely

Leone’s study could have far-reaching consequences. “If we suppose that lava formed the Noctis Labyrinthus and the Valles Marineris, then there has always been much less water on Mars than the research community has believed to date,” he says. Mars received very little rain in the past and it would not have been sufficient to erode such deep and large gorges. He adds that the shallow ocean north of the equator was probably much smaller than imagined – or hoped for; it would have existed only around the North Pole. The likelihood that life existed, or indeed still exists, on Mars is accordingly much lower.

Leone can imagine that the lava tubes still in existence are possible habitats for living organisms, as they would offer protection from the powerful UV rays that pummel the Martian surface. He therefore proposes a Mars mission to explore the lava tubes. He considers it feasible to send a rover through a hole in the ceiling of a tube and search for evidence of life. “Suitable locations could be determined using my data,” he says.

Swimming against the current

With his study, the Italian is swimming against the current and perhaps dismantling a dogma in the process. Most studies of the past 20 years have been concerned with the question of water on Mars and how it could have formed the canyons. Back in 1977, a researcher first posited the idea that the Valles Marineris may have been formed by lava, but the idea failed to gain traction. Leone says this was due to the tunnel vision that the red planet engenders and the prevailing mainstream research. The same story has been told for decades, with research targeted to that end, without achieving a breakthrough. Leone believes that in any case science would only benefit in considering other approaches. “I expect a spirited debate,” he says. “But my evidence is strong.”

Ice-loss moves the Earth 250 miles down

At the surface, Antarctica is a motionless and frozen landscape. Yet hundreds of miles down the Earth is moving at a rapid rate, new research has shown.

The study, led by Newcastle University, UK, and published this week in Earth and Planetary Science Letters, explains for the first time why the upward motion of the Earth’s crust in the Northern Antarctic Peninsula is currently taking place so quickly.

Previous studies have shown the earth is ‘rebounding’ due to the overlying ice sheet shrinking in response to climate change. This movement of the land was understood to be due to an instantaneous, elastic response followed by a very slow uplift over thousands of years.

But GPS data collected by the international research team, involving experts from Newcastle University, UK; Durham University; DTU, Denmark; University of Tasmania, Australia; Hamilton College, New York; the University of Colorado and the University of Toulouse, France, has revealed that the land in this region is actually rising at a phenomenal rate of 15mm a year – much greater than can be accounted for by the present-day elastic response alone.

And they have shown for the first time how the mantle below the Earth’s crust in the Antarctic Peninsula is flowing much faster than expected, probably due to subtle changes in temperature or chemical composition. This means it can flow more easily and so responds much more quickly to the lightening load hundreds of miles above it, changing the shape of the land.

Lead researcher, PhD student Grace Nield, based in the School of Civil Engineering and Geosciences at Newcastle University, explains: “You would expect this rebound to happen over thousands of years and instead we have been able to measure it in just over a decade. You can almost see it happening which is just incredible.

“Because the mantle is ‘runnier’ below the Northern Antarctic Peninsula it responds much more quickly to what’s happening on the surface. So as the glaciers thin and the load in that localised area reduces, the mantle pushes up the crust.

“At the moment we have only studied the vertical deformation so the next step is to look at horizontal motion caused by the ice unloading to get more of a 3-D picture of how the Earth is deforming, and to use other geophysical data to understand the mechanism of the flow.”

Since 1995 several ice shelves in the Northern Antarctic Peninsula have collapsed and triggered ice-mass unloading, causing the solid Earth to ‘bounce back’.

“Think of it a bit like a stretched piece of elastic,” says Nield, whose project is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC). “The ice is pressing down on the Earth and as this weight reduces the crust bounces back. But what we found when we compared the ice loss to the uplift was that they didn’t tally – something else had to be happening to be pushing the solid Earth up at such a phenomenal rate.”

Collating data from seven GPS stations situated across the Northern Peninsula, the team found the rebound was so fast that the upper mantle viscosity – or resistance to flow – had to be at least ten times lower than previously thought for the region and much lower than the rest of Antarctica.

Professor Peter Clarke, Professor of Geophysical Geodesy at Newcastle University and one of the authors of the paper, adds: “Seeing this sort of deformation of the earth at such a rate is unprecedented in Antarctica. What is particularly interesting here is that we can actually see the impact that glacier thinning is having on the rocks 250 miles down.”

Yellowstone geyser eruptions influenced more by internal processes

<IMG SRC="/Images/994664490.jpg" WIDTH="350" HEIGHT="396" BORDER="0" ALT="This is a map showing the location of Daisy and Old Faithful geysers in Yellowstone's Upper Geyser Basin. Inset map of Yellowstone National Park shows the weather station at Yellowstone Lake, seismic stations LKWY and H17A, and strainmeter B944. – Images taken from: Shaul Hurwitz, Robert A. Sohn, Karen Luttrell, Michael Manga, "Triggering and modulation of geyser eruptions in Yellowstone National Park by earthquakes, earth tides, and weather", Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, DOI:10.1002/2013JB010803″>
This is a map showing the location of Daisy and Old Faithful geysers in Yellowstone’s Upper Geyser Basin. Inset map of Yellowstone National Park shows the weather station at Yellowstone Lake, seismic stations LKWY and H17A, and strainmeter B944. – Images taken from: Shaul Hurwitz, Robert A. Sohn, Karen Luttrell, Michael Manga, “Triggering and modulation of geyser eruptions in Yellowstone National Park by earthquakes, earth tides, and weather”, Journal of Geophysical Research: Solid Earth, DOI:10.1002/2013JB010803

The intervals between geyser eruptions depend on a delicate balance of underground factors, such as heat and water supply, and interactions with surrounding geysers. Some geysers are highly predictable, with intervals between eruptions (IBEs) varying only slightly. The predictability of these geysers offer earth scientists a unique opportunity to investigate what may influence their eruptive activity, and to apply that information to rare and unpredictable types of eruptions, such as those from volcanoes.

Dr. Shaul Hurwitz took advantage of a decade of eruption data-spanning from 2001 to 2011-for two of Yellowstone’s most predictable geysers, the cone geyser Old Faithful and the pool geyser, Daisy.

Dr. Hurwitz’s team focused their statistical analysis on possible correlations between the geysers’ IBEs and external forces such as weather, earth tides and earthquakes. The authors found no link between weather and Old Faithful’s IBEs, but they did find that Daisy’s IBEs correlated with cold temperatures and high winds. In addition, Daisy’s IBEs were significantly shortened following the 7.9 magnitude earthquake that hit Alaska in 2002.

The authors note that atmospheric processes exert a relatively small but statistically significant influence on pool geysers’ IBEs by modulating heat transfer rates from the pool to the atmosphere. Overall, internal processes and interactions with surrounding geysers dominate IBEs’ variability, especially in cone geysers.