First harvest of research based on the final GOCE gravity model

This image, based on the final GOCE gravity model, charts current velocities in the Gulf Stream in meters per second. -  TUM IAPG
This image, based on the final GOCE gravity model, charts current velocities in the Gulf Stream in meters per second. – TUM IAPG

Just four months after the final data package from the GOCE satellite mission was delivered, researchers are laying out a rich harvest of scientific results, with the promise of more to come. A mission of the European Space Agency (ESA), the Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) provided the most accurate measurements yet of Earth’s gravitational field. The GOCE Gravity Consortium, coordinated by the Technische Universität München (TUM), produced all of the mission’s data products including the fifth and final GOCE gravity model. On this basis, studies in geophysics, geology, ocean circulation, climate change, and civil engineering are sharpening the picture of our dynamic planet – as can be seen in the program of the 5th International GOCE User Workshop, taking place Nov. 25-28 in Paris.

The GOCE satellite made 27,000 orbits between its launch in March 2009 and re-entry in November 2013, measuring tiny variations in the gravitational field that correspond to uneven distributions of mass in Earth’s oceans, continents, and deep interior. Some 800 million observations went into the computation of the final model, which is composed of more than 75,000 parameters representing the global gravitational field with a spatial resolution of around 70 kilometers. The precision of the model improved over time, as each release incorporated more data. Centimeter accuracy has now been achieved for variations of the geoid – a gravity-derived figure of Earth’s surface that serves as a global reference for sea level and heights – in a model based solely on GOCE data.

The fifth and last data release benefited from two special phases of observation. After its first three years of operation, the satellite’s orbit was lowered from 255 to 225 kilometers, increasing the sensitivity of gravity measurements to reveal even more detailed structures of the gravity field. And through most of the satellite’s final plunge through the atmosphere, some instruments continued to report measurements that have sparked intense interest far beyond the “gravity community” – for example, among researchers concerned with aerospace engineering, atmospheric sciences, and space debris.

Moving on: new science, future missions


Through the lens of Earth’s gravitational field, scientists can image our planet in a way that is complementary to approaches that rely on light, magnetism, or seismic waves. They can determine the speed of ocean currents from space, monitor rising sea level and melting ice sheets, uncover hidden features of continental geology, even peer into the convection machine that drives plate tectonics. Topics like these dominate the more than 100 talks scheduled for the 5th GOCE User Workshop, with technical talks on measurements and models playing a smaller role. “I see this as a sign of success, that the emphasis has shifted decisively to the user community,” says Prof. Roland Pail, director of the Institute for Astronomical and Physical Geodesy at TUM.

This shift can be seen as well among the topics covered by TUM researchers, such as estimates of the elastic thickness of the continents from GOCE gravity models, mass trends in Antarctica from global gravity fields, and a scientific roadmap toward worldwide unification of height systems. For his part Pail – who was responsible for delivery of the data products – chose to speak about consolidating science requirements for a next-generation gravity field mission.


TUM has organized a public symposium on “Seeing Earth in the ‘light’ of gravity” for the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, California. This session, featuring speakers from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany and Italy, takes place on Feb. 14, 2015. (See http://meetings.aaas.org/.)

This research was supported in part by the European Space Agency.

Publication:


“EGM_TIM_RL05: An Independent Geoid with Centimeter Accuracy Purely Based on the GOCE Mission,” Jan Martin Brockmann, Norbert Zehentner, Eduard Höck, Roland Pail, Ina Loth, Torsten Mayer-Gürr, and Wolf-Dieter Shuh. Geophysical Research Letters 2014, doi:10.1002/2014GL061904.

Asteroid impacts on Earth make structurally bizarre diamonds

Diamond grains from the Canyon Diablo meteorite are shown. The tick marks are spaced one-fifth of a millimeter (200 microns) apart. -  Arizona State University/Laurence Garvie
Diamond grains from the Canyon Diablo meteorite are shown. The tick marks are spaced one-fifth of a millimeter (200 microns) apart. – Arizona State University/Laurence Garvie

Scientists have argued for half a century about the existence of a form of diamond called lonsdaleite, which is associated with impacts by meteorites and asteroids. A group of scientists based mostly at Arizona State University now show that what has been called lonsdaleite is in fact a structurally disordered form of ordinary diamond.

The scientists’ report is published in Nature Communications, Nov. 20, by Péter Németh, a former ASU visiting researcher (now with the Research Centre of Natural Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences), together with ASU’s Laurence Garvie, Toshihiro Aoki and Peter Buseck, plus Natalia Dubrovinskaia and Leonid Dubrovinsky from the University of Bayreuth in Germany. Buseck and Garvie are with ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, while Aoki is with ASU’s LeRoy Eyring Center for Solid State Science.

“So-called lonsdaleite is actually the long-familiar cubic form of diamond, but it’s full of defects,” says Péter Németh. These can occur, he explains, due to shock metamorphism, plastic deformation or unequilibrated crystal growth.

The lonsdaleite story began almost 50 years ago. Scientists reported that a large meteorite, called Canyon Diablo after the crater it formed on impact in northern Arizona, contained a new form of diamond with a hexagonal structure. They described it as an impact-related mineral and called it lonsdaleite, after Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, a famous crystallographer.

Since then, “lonsdaleite” has been widely used by scientists as an indicator of ancient asteroidal impacts on Earth, including those linked to mass extinctions. In addition, it has been thought to have mechanical properties superior to ordinary diamond, giving it high potential industrial significance. All this focused much interest on the mineral, although pure crystals of it, even tiny ones, have never been found or synthesized. That posed a long-standing puzzle.

The ASU scientists approached the question by re-examining Canyon Diablo diamonds and investigating laboratory samples prepared under conditions in which lonsdaleite has been reported.

Using the advanced electron microscopes in ASU’s Center for Solid State Science, the team discovered, both in the Canyon Diablo and the synthetic samples, new types of diamond twins and nanometer-scale structural complexity. These give rise to features attributed to lonsdaleite.

“Most crystals have regular repeating structures, much like the bricks in a well-built wall,” says Peter Buseck. However, interruptions can occur in the regularity, and these are called defects. “Defects are intermixed with the normal diamond structure, just as if the wall had an occasional half-brick or longer brick or row of bricks that’s slightly displaced to one side or another.”

The outcome of the new work is that so-called lonsdaleite is the same as the regular cubic form of diamond, but it has been subjected to shock or pressure that caused defects within the crystal structure.

One consequence of the new work is that many scientific studies based on the presumption that lonsdaleite is a separate type of diamond need to be re-examined. The study implies that both shock and static compression can produce an intensely defective diamond structure.

The new discovery also suggests that the observed structural complexity of the Canyon Diablo diamond results in interesting mechanical properties. It could be a candidate for a product with exceptional hardness.

The School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

ASU, IBM move ultrafast, low-cost DNA sequencing technology a step closer to reality

Led by ASU Regents' professor Stuart Lindsay, a team of scientists from Arizona State University's Biodesign Institute and IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center have developed a prototype DNA reader that could make whole genome profiling an everyday practice in medicine. -  Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University
Led by ASU Regents’ professor Stuart Lindsay, a team of scientists from Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute and IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center have developed a prototype DNA reader that could make whole genome profiling an everyday practice in medicine. – Biodesign Institute at Arizona State University

A team of scientists from Arizona State University’s Biodesign Institute and IBM’s T.J. Watson Research Center have developed a prototype DNA reader that could make whole genome profiling an everyday practice in medicine.

“Our goal is to put cheap, simple and powerful DNA and protein diagnostic devices into every single doctor’s office,” said Stuart Lindsay, an ASU physics professor and director of Biodesign’s Center for Single Molecule Biophysics. Such technology could help usher in the age of personalized medicine, where information from an individual’s complete DNA and protein profiles could be used to design treatments specific to their individual makeup.

Such game-changing technology is needed to make genome sequencing a reality. The current hurdle is to do so for less than $1,000, an amount for which insurance companies are more likely to provide reimbursement.

In their latest research breakthrough, the team fashioned a tiny, DNA reading device a thousands of times smaller than width of a single human hair.

The device is sensitive enough to distinguish the individual chemical bases of DNA (known by their abbreviated letters of A, C, T or G) when they are pumped past the reading head.

Proof-of-concept was demonstrated, by using solutions of the individual DNA bases, which gave clear signals sensitive enough to detect tiny amounts of DNA (nanomolar concentrations), even better than today’s state-of-the-art, so called next-generation DNA sequencing technology.

Making the solid-state device is just like making a sandwich, just with ultra high-tech semiconductor tools used to slice and stack the atomic-sized layers of meats and cheeses like the butcher shop’s block. The secret is to make slice and stack the layers just so, to turn the chemical information of the DNA into a change in the electrical signal.

First, they made a “sandwich” composed of two metal electrodes separated by a two-nanometer thick insulating layer (a single nanometer is 10,000 times smaller than a human hair), made by using a semiconductor technology called atomic layer deposition.

Then a hole is cut through the sandwich: DNA bases inside the hole are read as they pass the gap between the metal layers.

“The technology we’ve developed might just be the first big step in building a single-molecule sequencing device based on ordinary computer chip technology,” said Lindsay.

“Previous attempts to make tunnel junctions for reading DNA had one electrode facing another across a small gap between the electrodes, and the gaps had to be adjusted by hand. This made it impossible to use computer chip manufacturing methods to make devices,” said Lindsay.

“Our approach of defining the gap using a thin layer of dielectric (insulating) material between the electrodes and exposing this gap by drilling a hole through the layers is much easier,” he said. “What is more, the recognition tunneling technology we have developed allows us to make a relatively large gap (of two nanometers) compared to the much smaller gaps required previously for tunnel current read-out (which were less than a single nanometer wide). The ability to use larger gaps for tunneling makes the manufacture of the device much easier and gives DNA molecules room to pass the electrodes.”

Specifically, when a current is passed through the nanopore, as the DNA passes through, it causes a spike in the current unique to each chemical base (A, C, T or G) within the DNA molecule. A few more modifications are made to polish and finish the device manufacturing.

The team encountered considerable device-to-device variation, so calibration will be needed to make the technology more robust. And the final big step – of reducing the diameter of the hole through the device to that of a single DNA molecule – has yet to be taken.

But overall, the research team has developed a scalable manufacturing process to make a device that can work reliably for hours at a time, identifying each of the DNA chemical bases while flowing through the two-nanometer gap.

The research team is also working on modifying the technique to read other single molecules, which could be used in an important technology for drug development.

The latest developments could also bring in big business for ASU. Lindsay, dubbed a “serial entrepreneur” by the media, has a new spinout venture, called Recognition Analytix, that hopes to follow the success of Molecular Imaging Corp, a similar instrument company he co-founded in 1993, and sold to Agilent Technologies in 2005.

Geologists discover ancient buried canyon in South Tibet

This photo shows the Yarlung Tsangpo Valley close to the Tsangpo Gorge, where it is rather narrow and underlain by only about 250 meters of sediments. The mountains in the upper left corner belong to the Namche Barwa massif. Previously, scientists had suspected that the debris deposited by a glacier in the foreground was responsible for the formation of the steep Tsangpo Gorge -- the new discoveries falsify this hypothesis. -  Ping Wang
This photo shows the Yarlung Tsangpo Valley close to the Tsangpo Gorge, where it is rather narrow and underlain by only about 250 meters of sediments. The mountains in the upper left corner belong to the Namche Barwa massif. Previously, scientists had suspected that the debris deposited by a glacier in the foreground was responsible for the formation of the steep Tsangpo Gorge — the new discoveries falsify this hypothesis. – Ping Wang

A team of researchers from Caltech and the China Earthquake Administration has discovered an ancient, deep canyon buried along the Yarlung Tsangpo River in south Tibet, north of the eastern end of the Himalayas. The geologists say that the ancient canyon–thousands of feet deep in places–effectively rules out a popular model used to explain how the massive and picturesque gorges of the Himalayas became so steep, so fast.

“I was extremely surprised when my colleagues, Jing Liu-Zeng and Dirk Scherler, showed me the evidence for this canyon in southern Tibet,” says Jean-Philippe Avouac, the Earle C. Anthony Professor of Geology at Caltech. “When I first saw the data, I said, ‘Wow!’ It was amazing to see that the river once cut quite deeply into the Tibetan Plateau because it does not today. That was a big discovery, in my opinion.”

Geologists like Avouac and his colleagues, who are interested in tectonics–the study of the earth’s surface and the way it changes–can use tools such as GPS and seismology to study crustal deformation that is taking place today. But if they are interested in studying changes that occurred millions of years ago, such tools are not useful because the activity has already happened. In those cases, rivers become a main source of information because they leave behind geomorphic signatures that geologists can interrogate to learn about the way those rivers once interacted with the land–helping them to pin down when the land changed and by how much, for example.

“In tectonics, we are always trying to use rivers to say something about uplift,” Avouac says. “In this case, we used a paleocanyon that was carved by a river. It’s a nice example where by recovering the geometry of the bottom of the canyon, we were able to say how much the range has moved up and when it started moving.”

The team reports its findings in the current issue of Science.

Last year, civil engineers from the China Earthquake Administration collected cores by drilling into the valley floor at five locations along the Yarlung Tsangpo River. Shortly after, former Caltech graduate student Jing Liu-Zeng, who now works for that administration, returned to Caltech as a visiting associate and shared the core data with Avouac and Dirk Scherler, then a postdoc in Avouac’s group. Scherler had previously worked in the far western Himalayas, where the Indus River has cut deeply into the Tibetan Plateau, and immediately recognized that the new data suggested the presence of a paleocanyon.

Liu-Zeng and Scherler analyzed the core data and found that at several locations there were sedimentary conglomerates, rounded gravel and larger rocks cemented together, that are associated with flowing rivers, until a depth of 800 meters or so, at which point the record clearly indicated bedrock. This suggested that the river once carved deeply into the plateau.

To establish when the river switched from incising bedrock to depositing sediments, they measured two isotopes, beryllium-10 and aluminum-26, in the lowest sediment layer. The isotopes are produced when rocks and sediment are exposed to cosmic rays at the surface and decay at different rates once buried, and so allowed the geologists to determine that the paleocanyon started to fill with sediment about 2.5 million years ago.

The researchers’ reconstruction of the former valley floor showed that the slope of the river once increased gradually from the Gangetic Plain to the Tibetan Plateau, with no sudden changes, or knickpoints. Today, the river, like most others in the area, has a steep knickpoint where it meets the Himalayas, at a place known as the Namche Barwa massif. There, the uplift of the mountains is extremely rapid (on the order of 1 centimeter per year, whereas in other areas 5 millimeters per year is more typical) and the river drops by 2 kilometers in elevation as it flows through the famous Tsangpo Gorge, known by some as the Yarlung Tsangpo Grand Canyon because it is so deep and long.

Combining the depth and age of the paleocanyon with the geometry of the valley, the geologists surmised that the river existed in this location prior to about 3 million years ago, but at that time, it was not affected by the Himalayas. However, as the Indian and Eurasian plates continued to collide and the mountain range pushed northward, it began impinging on the river. Suddenly, about 2.5 million years ago, a rapidly uplifting section of the mountain range got in the river’s way, damming it, and the canyon subsequently filled with sediment.

“This is the time when the Namche Barwa massif started to rise, and the gorge developed,” says Scherler, one of two lead authors on the paper and now at the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences in Potsdam, Germany.

That picture of the river and the Tibetan Plateau, which involves the river incising deeply into the plateau millions of years ago, differs quite a bit from the typically accepted geologic vision. Typically, geologists believe that when rivers start to incise into a plateau, they eat at the edges, slowly making their way into the plateau over time. However, the rivers flowing across the Himalayas all have strong knickpoints and have not incised much at all into the Tibetan Plateau. Therefore, the thought has been that the rapid uplift of the Himalayas has pushed the rivers back, effectively pinning them, so that they have not been able to make their way into the plateau. But that explanation does not work with the newly discovered paleocanyon.

The team’s new hypothesis also rules out a model that has been around for about 15 years, called tectonic aneurysm, which suggests that the rapid uplift seen at the Namche Barwa massif was triggered by intense river incision. In tectonic aneurysm, a river cuts down through the earth’s crust so fast that it causes the crust to heat up, making a nearby mountain range weaker and facilitating uplift.

The model is popular among geologists, and indeed Avouac himself published a modeling paper in 1996 that showed the viability of the mechanism. “But now we have discovered that the river was able to cut into the plateau way before the uplift happened,” Avouac says, “and this shows that the tectonic aneurysm model was actually not at work here. The rapid uplift is not a response to river incision.”

###

The other lead author on the paper, “Tectonic control of the Yarlung Tsangpo Gorge, revealed by a 2.5 Myr old buried canyon in Southern Tibet,” is Ping Wang of the State Key Laboratory of Earthquake Dynamics, in Beijing, China. Additional authors include Jürgen Mey, of the University of Potsdam, in Germany; and Yunda Zhang and Dingguo Shi of the Chengdu Engineering Corporation, in China. The work was supported by the National Natural Science Foundation of China, the State Key Laboratory for Earthquake Dynamics, and the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Himalaya tectonic dam with a discharge

The Himalaya features some of the most impressive gorges on Earth that have been formed by rivers. The geologic history of the famous Tsangpo Gorge, in the eastern Himalaya, now needs to be rewritten.

A team of German, Chinese, and American geoscientists have namely discovered a canyon, filled with more than 500 m of sediments beneath the bed of the present-day Yarlung Tsangpo River upstream from the gorge. Using drill cores, the scientists were able to reconstruct the former valley floor of this river, which allowed them to reconstruct the geological history of the Tsangpo Gorge (Science, 21.11.2014). They discovered that the gorge obtained its steep form in response to rapid tectonic uplift in the Himalaya, two to three million years ago. “Because of its high gradient, the river incises its bed very rapidly”, explains Dirk Scherler from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. “The rocks here are eroded at annual rates of up to one centimeter per year which is matched by tectonic uplift of the same rate.” The collision of India with the Eurasian continent has created a tectonic dam here.

This barrier caused a lower flow velocity of the Yarlung Tsangpoupstream. Previously, the river had deeply incised into the Tibetan Plateau. Due to the reduced flow rate the sediments which the Yarlung Tsangpo River and its tributaries eroded from the highlands were deposited in the river bed along hundreds of kilometers.

The scientists estimated that these deposits are up to 1000 m thick. “Five drillings have been conducted over a distance of 300 km upstream of the gorge”, says Dirk Scherler. “One of the drillings encountered bedrock after 540 meters of sediments. From the drill cores, we were able to infer the reduction in stream flow velocity and date the initiation of sedimentation using cosmogenic nuclides. These are rare isotopes that are produced by cosmic rays near the Earth’s surface. Three Million years ago, the river was still incising into Himalayan bedrock.” But today the once huge canyon is buried by sediments.

The Yarlung Tsangpo is the largest high mountain river on Earth. It flows along a distance of 1700 km across the Tibetan Plateau, at an elevation of around 4000 meters and follows the boundary between India and Eurasia. In the eastern Himalaya, the river leaves the high plateau and breaks through the world famous, horseshoe-shaped Tsangpo Gorge for the plains of India.

The new findings show that rapid incision of the Yarlung Tsangpo and the development of the Tsangpo Gorge occurred in response to tectonic uplift, and not, as previously thought, the other way round. In addition, these observations refute existing hypotheses that relate the origin of the Tsangpo Gorge to river capture of the Yarlung Tsangpo by the Brahmaputra River.

Geologists shed light on formation of Alaska Range

Syracuse University Professor Paul Fitzgerald and a group of students have been studying the Alaska Range. -  Syracuse University
Syracuse University Professor Paul Fitzgerald and a group of students have been studying the Alaska Range. – Syracuse University

Geologists in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences have recently figured out what has caused the Alaska Range to form the way it has and why the range boasts such an enigmatic topographic signature. The narrow mountain range is home to some of the world’s most dramatic topography, including 20,320-foot Mount McKinley, North America’s highest mountain.

Professor Paul Fitzgerald and a team of students and fellow scientists have been studying the Alaska Range along the Denali fault. They think they know why the fault is located where it is and what accounts for the alternating asymmetrical, mountain-scale topography along the fault.

Their findings were the subject of a recent paper in the journal Tectonics (American Geophysical Union, 2014).

In 2002, the Denali fault, which cuts across south-central Alaska, was the site of a magnitude-7.9 earthquake and was felt as far away as Texas and Louisiana. It was the largest earthquake of its kind in more than 150 years.

“Following the earthquake, researchers flocked to the area to examine the effects,” says Fitzgerald, who serves as professor of Earth Sciences and an associate dean for the College. “They were fascinated by how the frozen ground behaved; the many landslides [the earthquake] caused; how bridges responded; and how the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline survived, as it was engineered to do so.”

Geologists were also surprised by how the earthquake began on a previously unknown thrust-fault; then propagated eastward, along the Denali fault, and finally jumped onto another fault, hundreds of kilometers away.

“From our perspective, the earthquake has motivated analyses of why the highest mountains in the central Alaska Range occur south of the Denali fault and the highest mountains in the eastern Alaska Range occur north of the fault–something that has puzzled us for years,” Fitzgerald adds. “It’s been an enigma staring us in the face.”

He attributes the Alaska Range’s alternating topographic signatures to a myriad of factors: contrasting lithospheric strength between large terranes (i.e., distinctly different rock units); the location of the curved Denali fault; the transfer of strain inland from southern Alaska’s active plate margin; and the shape of the controlling former continental margin against weaker suture-zone rocks.

It’s no secret that Alaska is one of the most geologically active areas on the planet. For instance, scientists know that the North American Plate is currently overriding the Pacific Plate at the latter’s southern coast, while the Yakutat microplate is colliding with North America.

As a result of plate tectonics, Alaska is an amalgamation of terranes that have collided with the North American craton and have accreted to become part of North America.

Cratons are pieces of continents that have been largely stable for hundreds of millions of years.

Terranes often originate as volcanic islands (like those of Hawaii) and, after colliding with one another or a continent, are separated by large discrete faults. When terranes collide and accrete, they form a suture, also known as a collision zone, which is made up of weak, crushed rock. During deformation, suture-zone rocks usually deform first, especially if they are adjacent to a strong rock body.

“Technically, the Denali fault is what we’d call an ‘intercontinental right-lateral strike-slip fault system,'” says Fitzgerald, adding that a strike-slip fault occurs when rocks move horizontally past one another, usually on a vertical fault. “This motion includes a component of slip along the fault and a component of normal motion against the fault that creates mountains. Hence, the shape of the fault determines which of the two components is predominant and where mountains form.”

In Alaska, the shape of the accreted terranes generally controls the location of the Denali fault and the mountains that form along it, especially at the bends in the trace of the fault.

Fitzgerald: “Mount McKinley and the central Alaska Range lie within the concave curve of the Denali fault. There, higher topography and greater exhumation [uplift of rock] occur south of the Denali fault, exactly where you’d expect a mountain range to form, given the regional tectonics. In the eastern Alaska Range, higher topography and greater exhumation are found north of the fault, on its convex side–not an expected pattern at all and very puzzling.”

Using mapped surface geology, geophysical data, and thermochronology (i.e., time-temperature history of the rocks), Fitzgerald and colleagues have determined that much of Alaska’s uplift and deformation began some 25 million years ago, when the Yakutat microplate first started colliding with North America. The bold, glacier-clad peaks comprising the Alaska Range actually derive from within the aforementioned “weak suture-zone rocks” between the terranes.

While mountains are high and give the impression of strength, they are built largely from previously fractured rock units. Rock movement along the Denali fault drives the uplift of the mountains, which form at bends in the fault, where previously fractured suture-zone rocks are pinned against the stronger former North American continental margin.

“The patterns of deformation help us understand regional tectonics and the formation of the Alaska Range, which is fascinating to geologists and non-geologists alike,” says Fitzgerald. “Being able to determine patterns or how to reveal them, while others see chaos, is often the key to finding the answer to complex problems. … To us scientists, the real significance of this work is that it helps us understand the evolution of our planet, how faults and mountain belts form, and why earthquakes happen. It also provides a number of hypotheses about Alaskan tectonics and rock deformation that we can test, using the Alaska Range as our laboratory.”

In addition to Fitzgerald, the paper was co-authored by Sarah Roeske, a research scientist at the University of California, Davis; Jeff Benowitz, a research scientist at the Geophysical Institute at the University of Alaska Fairbanks; Steven Riccio and Stephanie Perry, graduate students in Earth Sciences at Syracuse; and Phillip Armstrong, professor and chair of geological sciences at California State University, Fullerton.

Housed in Syracuse’s College of Arts and Sciences, the Department of Earth Sciences offers graduate and undergraduate degree opportunities in crustal evolution and tectonics, environmental sciences and climate change, hydrogeology, sedimentology and paleolimnology, geochemistry, and paleobiology.

Prehistoric landslide discovery rivals largest known on surface of Earth

David Hacker, Ph.D., points to pseudotachylyte layers and veins within the Markagunt gravity slide. -  Photo courtesy of David Hacker
David Hacker, Ph.D., points to pseudotachylyte layers and veins within the Markagunt gravity slide. – Photo courtesy of David Hacker

A catastrophic landslide, one of the largest known on the surface of the Earth, took place within minutes in southwestern Utah more than 21 million years ago, reports a Kent State University geologist in a paper being to be published in the November issue of the journal Geology.

The Markagunt gravity slide, the size of three Ohio counties, is one of the two largest known continental landslides (larger slides exist on the ocean floors). David Hacker, Ph.D., associate professor of geology at the Trumbull campus, and two colleagues discovered and mapped the scope of the Markagunt slide over the past two summers.

His colleagues and co-authors are Robert F. Biek of the Utah Geological Survey and Peter D. Rowley of Geologic Mapping, Inc. of New Harmony, Utah.

Geologists had known about smaller portions of the Markagunt slide before the recent mapping showed its enormous extent. Hiking through the wilderness areas of the Dixie National Forest and Bureau of Land Management land, Hacker identified features showing that the Markagunt landslide was much bigger than previously known.

The landslide took place in an area between what is now Bryce Canyon National Park and the town of Beaver, Utah. It covered about 1,300 square miles, an area as big as Ohio’s Cuyahoga, Portage and Summit counties combined.

Its rival in size, the “Heart Mountain slide,” which took place around 50 million years ago in northwest Wyoming, was discovered in the 1940s and is a classic feature in geology textbooks.

The Markagunt could prove to be much larger than the Heart Mountain slide, once it is mapped in greater detail.

“Large-scale catastrophic collapses of volcanic fields such as these are rare but represent the largest known landslides on the surface of the Earth,” the authors wrote.

The length of the landslide – over 55 miles – also shows that it was as fast moving as it was massive, Hacker said. Evidence showing that the slide was catastrophic – occurring within minutes – included the presence of pseudotachylytes, rocks that were melted into glass by the immense friction. Any animals living in its path would have been quickly overrun.

Evidence of the slide is not readily apparent to visitors today. “Looking at it, you wouldn’t even recognize it as a landslide,” he said. But internal features of the slide, exposed in outcrops, yielded evidence such as jigsaw puzzle rock fractures and shear zones, along with the pseudotachylytes.

Hacker, who studies catastrophic geological events, said the slide originated when a volcanic field consisting of many strato-volcanoes, a type similar to Mount St. Helens in the Cascade Mountains, which erupted in 1980, collapsed and produced the massive landslide.

The collapse may have been caused by the vertical inflation of deeper magma chambers that fed the volcanoes. Hacker has spent many summers in Utah mapping geologic features of the Pine Valley Mountains south of the Markagunt where he has found evidence of similar, but smaller slides from magma intrusions called laccoliths.

What is learned about the mega-landslide could help geologists better understand these extreme types of events. The Markagunt and the Heart Mountain slides document for the first time how large portions of ancient volcanic fields have collapsed, Hacker said, representing “a new class of hazards in volcanic fields.”

While the Markagunt landslide was a rare event, it shows the magnitude of what could happen in modern volcanic fields like the Cascades. “We study events from the geologic past to better understand what could happen in the future,” he said.

The next steps in the research, conducted with his co-authors on the Geology paper, will be to continue mapping the slide, collect samples from the base for structural analysis and date the pseudotachylytes.

Hacker, who earned his Ph.D. in geology at Kent State, joined the faculty in 2000 after working for an environmental consulting company. He is co-author of the book “Earth’s Natural Hazards: Understanding Natural Disasters and Catastrophes,” published in 2010.

View the abstract of the Geology paper, available online now.

Learn more about research at Kent State: http://www.kent.edu/research