UW team explores large, restless volcanic field in Chile

If Brad Singer knew for sure what was happening three miles under an odd-shaped lake in the Andes, he might be less eager to spend a good part of his career investigating a volcanic field that has erupted 36 times during the last 25,000 years. As he leads a large scientific team exploring a region in the Andes called Laguna del Maule, Singer hopes the area remains quiet.

But the primary reason to expend so much effort on this area boils down to one fact: The rate of uplift is among the highest ever observed by satellite measurement for a volcano that is not actively erupting.

That uplift is almost definitely due to a large intrusion of magma — molten rock — beneath the volcanic complex. For seven years, an area larger than the city of Madison has been rising by 10 inches per year.

That rapid rise provides a major scientific opportunity: to explore a mega-volcano before it erupts. That effort, and the hazard posed by the restless magma reservoir beneath Laguna del Maule, are described in a major research article in the December issue of the Geological Society of America’s GSA Today.

“We’ve always been looking at these mega-eruptions in the rear-view mirror,” says Singer. “We look at the lava, dust and ash, and try to understand what happened before the eruption. Since these huge eruptions are rare, that’s usually our only option. But we look at the steady uplift at Laguna del Maule, which has a history of regular eruptions, combined with changes in gravity, electrical conductivity and swarms of earthquakes, and we suspect that conditions necessary to trigger another eruption are gathering force.”

Laguna del Maule looks nothing like a classic, cone-shaped volcano, since the high-intensity erosion caused by heavy rain and snow has carried most of the evidence to the nearby Pacific Ocean. But the overpowering reason for the absence of “typical volcano cones” is the nature of the molten rock underground. It’s called rhyolite, and it’s the most explosive type of magma on the planet.

The eruption of a rhyolite volcano is too quick and violent to build up a cone. Instead, this viscous, water-rich magma often explodes into vast quantities of ash that can form deposits hundreds of yards deep, followed by a slower flow of glassy magma that can be tens of yards tall and measure more than a mile in length.

The next eruption could be in the size range of Mount St. Helens — or it could be vastly bigger, Singer says. “We know that over the past million years or so, several eruptions at Laguna del Maule or nearby volcanoes have been more than 100 times larger than Mount St. Helens,” he says. “Those are rare, but they are possible.” Such a mega-eruption could change the weather, disrupt the ecosystem and damage the economy.

Trying to anticipate what Laguna del Maule holds in store, Singer is heading a new $3 million, five-year effort sponsored by the National Science Foundation to document its behavior before an eruption. With colleagues from Chile, Argentina, Canada, Singapore, and Cornell and Georgia Tech universities, he is masterminding an effort to build a scientific model of the underground forces that could lead to eruption. “This model should capture how this system has evolved in the crust at all scales, from the microscopic to basinwide, over the last 100,000 years,” Singer says. “It’s like a movie from the past to the present and into the future.”

Over the next five years, Singer says he and 30 colleagues will “throw everything, including the kitchen sink, at the problem — geology, geochemistry, geochronology and geophysics — to help measure, and then model, what’s going on.”

One key source of information on volcanoes is seismic waves. Ground shaking triggered by the movement of magma can signal an impending eruption. Team member Clifford Thurber, a seismologist and professor of geoscience at UW-Madison, wants to use distant earthquakes to locate the underground magma body.

As many as 50 seismometers will eventually be emplaced above and around the magma at Laguna del Maule, in the effort to create a 3-D image of Earth’s crust in the area.

By tracking multiple earthquakes over several years, Thurber and his colleagues want to pinpoint the size and location of the magma body — roughly estimated as an oval measuring five kilometers (3.1 miles) by 10 kilometers (6.2 miles).

Each seismometer will record the travel time of earthquake waves originating within a few thousand kilometers, Thurber explains. Since soft rock transmits sound less efficiently than hard rock, “we expect that waves that pass through the presumed magma body will be delayed,” Thurber says. “It’s very simple. It’s like a CT scan, except instead of density we are looking at seismic wave velocity.”

As Singer, who has been visiting Laguna del Maule since 1998, notes, “The rate of uplift — among the highest ever observed — has been sustained for seven years, and we have discovered a large, fluid-rich zone in the crust under the lake using electrical resistivity methods. Thus, there are not many possible explanations other than a big, active body of magma at a shallow depth.”

The expanding body of magma could freeze in place — or blow its top, he says. “One thing we know for sure is that the surface cannot continue rising indefinitely.”

Syracuse geologist reveals correlation between earthquakes, landslides

Devin McPhillips is a research associate in the Department of Earth Sciences. -  Syracuse University
Devin McPhillips is a research associate in the Department of Earth Sciences. – Syracuse University

A geologist in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences has demonstrated that earthquakes–not climate change, as previously thought–affect the rate of landslides in Peru.

The finding is the subject of an article in Nature Geoscience (Nature Publishing Group, 2014) by Devin McPhillips, a research associate in the Department of Earth Sciences. He co-wrote the article with Paul Bierman, professor of geology at The University of Vermont; and Dylan Rood, a lecturer at Imperial College London (U.K.).

“Geologic records of landslide activity offer rare glimpses into landscapes evolving under the influence of tectonics and climate,” says McPhillips, whose expertise includes geomorphology and tectonics. “Because deposits from individual landslides are unlikely to be preserved, it’s difficult to reconstruct landslide activity in the geologic past. Therefore, we’ve developed a method that measures landslide activity before and after the last glacial-interglacial climate transition in Peru.”

McPhillips and his team have spent the past several years in the Western Andes Mountains, studying cobbles in the Quebrada Veladera river channel and in an adjacent fill terrace. By measuring the amount of a nuclide known as Beryllium-10 (Be-10) in each area’s cobble population, they’ve been able to calculate erosion rates over tens of thousands of years.

The result? The range of Be concentrations in terrace cobbles from a relatively wet period, more than 16,000 years ago, was no different from those found in river channel cobbles from more recent arid periods.

“This suggests that the amount of erosion from landslides has not changed in response to climatic changes,” McPhillips says. “Our integrated millennial-scale record of landslides implies that earthquakes may be the primary landslide trigger.”

McPhillips says the study is the first to study landslides by measuring individual particles of river sediment, as opposed to amalgamating all the particles and then measuring a single concentration.

“These concentrations provide a robust record of hill-slope behavior over long timescales,” he adds. “Millennial-scale records of landslide activity, especially in settings without preserved landslide deposits, are an important complement to studies documenting modern landslide inventories.”

Earthquakes are a regular occurrence in Peru, which is located at the nexus of the small Nazca oceanic plate and the larger South American crustal plate. The ongoing subduction, or sliding, of the Nazca Plate under the South American Plate has spawned considerable tectonic activity.

“Peru is rife with earthquakes, landslides, volcanic eruptions, and tectonic uplift,” McPhillips adds. “By studying its past, we may be able to better predict and prepare for future calamities.”


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

Geologists dig into science around the globe, on land and at sea

University of Cincinnati geologists will be well represented among geoscientists from around the world at The Geological Society of America’s Annual Meeting and Exposition. The meeting takes place Oct. 19-22, in Vancouver, Canada, and will feature geoscientists representing more than 40 different disciplines. The meeting will feature highlights of UC’s geological research that is taking place globally, from Chile to Costa Rica, Belize, Bulgaria, Scotland, Trinidad and a new project under development in the Canary Islands.

UC faculty and graduate students are lead or supporting authors on more than two dozen Earth Sciences-related research papers and/or PowerPoint and poster exhibitions at the GSA meeting.

The presentations also cover UC’s longtime and extensive exploration and findings in the Cincinnati Arch of the Ohio Valley, world-renowned for its treasure trove of paleontology – plant and animal fossils that were preserved when a shallow sea covered the region 450 million years ago during the Paleozoic Era.

Furthermore, in an effort to diversify the field of researchers in the Earth Sciences, a UC assistant professor of science education and geology, Christopher Atchison, was awarded funding from the National Science Foundation and the Society of Exploration Geophysics to lead a research field trip in Vancouver for students with disabilities. Graduate and undergraduate student participants will conduct the research on Oct. 18 and then join events at the GSA meeting. They’ll be guided by geoscience researchers representing the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. Those guides include Atchison and Julie Hendricks, a UC special education major from Batavia, Ohio, who will be using her expertise in American Sign Language (ASL) to assist student researchers representing Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities.

The meeting will also formally introduce Arnold Miller, UC professor of geology, as the new president-elect of the national Paleontological Society Thomas Lowell, professor of geology, is a recently elected Fellow of the Geological Society of America – a recognition for producing a substantial body of research. Lowell joins colleagues Warren Huff, professor of geology, and Lewis Owen, professor and head of the Department of Geology, as GSA Fellows.

Here are highlights of the UC research to be presented at the GSA meeting Oct. 19-22:

Staying Put or Moving On? Researchers Develop Model to Identify Migrating Patterns of Different Species

Are plant and animal species what you might call lifelong residents – they never budge from the same place? That’s a relatively common belief in ecology and paleoecology – that classes of organisms tend to stay put over millions of years and either evolve or go extinct as the environment changes. UC researchers developed a series of numerical models simulating shifting habitats in fossil regions to compare whether species changed environments when factoring geological and other changes in the fossil record. They found that geologically driven changes in the quality of the fossil record did not distort the real ecological signal, and that most species maintained their particular habitat preferences through time. They did not evolve to adapt to changing environments, but rather, they migrated, following their preferred environments. That is to say, they did not stay in place geographically but by moving, they were able to track their favored habitats. Field research for the project was conducted in New York state as well as the paleontological-rich region of Cincinnati; Dayton, Ohio, Lexington, Ky.; and Indiana. Funding for the project was supported by The Paleontological Society; The Geological Society of America; The American Museum of Natural History and the UC Geology Department’s Kenneth E. Caster Memorial Fund.

Presenter: Andrew Zaffos, UC geology doctoral student

Co-authors: Arnold Miller, Carlton Brett

Pioneering Study Provides a Better Understanding of What Southern Ohio and Central Kentucky Looked Like Hundreds of Millions of Years Ago

The end of the Ordovician period resulted in one of the largest mass extinction events in the Earth’s history. T.J. Malgieri, a UC master’s student in geology, led this study examining the limestone and shales of the Upper Ordovician Period – the geologic Grant Lake Formation covering southern Ohio and central Kentucky – to recreate how the shoreline looked some 445 million years ago. In this pioneering study of mud cracks and deposits in the rocks, the researchers discovered that the shoreline existed to the south and that the water became deeper toward the north. By determining these ecological parameters, the ramp study provides a better understanding of environments during a time of significant ecological change. Malgieri says the approach can be applied to other basins throughout the world to create depth indicators in paeloenvironments.

Presenter: T.J. Malgieri, UC geology master’s student

Co-authors: Carlton Brett, Cameron Schalbach, Christopher Aucoin, UC; James Thomka (UC, University of Akron); Benjamin Dattilo, Indiana University Purdue University Ft. Wayne

UC Researchers Take a Unique Approach to Monitoring Groundwater Supplies Near Ohio Fracking Sites

A collaborative research project out of UC is examining effects of fracking on groundwater in the Utica Shale region of eastern Ohio. First launched in Carroll County in 2012, the team of researchers is examining methane levels and origins of methane in private wells and springs before, during and after the onset of fracking. The team travels to the region to take water samples four times a year.

Presenter: Claire Botner, a UC geology master’s student

Co-author: Amy Townsend-Small, UC assistant professor of geology

Sawing Through Seagrass to Reveal Clues to the Past

Kelsy Feser, a UC doctoral student in geology, is working at several sites around St. Croix in the Virgin Islands to see if human developments impact marine life. The research focuses on shells of snails and clams that have piled up on the sea floor for thousands of years. Digging through layers of thick seagrass beds on the ocean floor, Feser can examine deeper shells that were abundant thousands of years ago and compare them to shallower layers that include living clams and snails. Early analysis indicates a greater population of potentially pollution-tolerant mussels in an area near a landfill on the island, compared with shells from much earlier time periods. Feser is doing this sea grass analysis around additional sites including tourist resorts, an oil refinery, a power plant and a marina. Funding for the research is provided by the Paleontological Society, the GSA, the American Museum of Natural History and the UC Geology Department.

Presenter: Kelsy Feser, UC geology doctoral student

Co-authors: Arnold Miller

Turning to the Present to Understand the Past

In order to properly interpret changes in climate, vegetation, or animal populations over time, it is necessary to establish a comparative baseline. Stella Mosher, a UC geology master’s student, is studying stable carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and strontium isotopes in modern vegetation from the Canary Islands in order to quantify modern climatic and environmental patterns. Her findings will provide a crucial foundation for future UC research on regional paleoclimatic and paleoenvironmental shifts.

Presenter: Stella Mosher, graduate student in geology

Co-authors: Brooke Crowley, assistant professor of geology; Yurena Yanes, research assistant professor of geology

A Study on the Impact of Sea Spray

Sulfur is an element of interest in both geology and archaeology, because it can reveal information about the diets of ancient cultures. This study takes a novel approach to studying how sea spray can affect the sulfur isotope values in plants on a small island, focusing on the island of Trinidad. Researchers collected leaves from different plant species to get their sulfur isotope value, exploring whether wind direction played a role in how plants were influenced by the marine water from sea spray. Vegetation was collected from the edges of the island to the deeply forested areas. The study found that sulfur isotope values deeper inland and on the calmer west coast were dramatically lower in indicating marine water than vegetation along the edges and the east coast. The findings can help indicate the foraging activities of humans and animals. Funding for the study was supported by the Geological Society of America, the UC Graduate Student Association and the UC Department of Geology.

Presenter: Janine Sparks, UC geology doctoral student

Co-authors: Brooke Crowley, UC assistant professor, geology/anthropology; William Gilhooly III, assistant professor, Earth Sciences, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Proxy Wars – The Paleobiology Data Debate

For the past several decades, paleobiologists have built large databases containing information on fossil plants and animals of all geological ages to investigate the timing and extent of major changes in biodiversity – changes such as mass extinctions that have taken place throughout the history of life. Biodiversity researcher Arnold Miller says that in building these databases, it can be a challenge to accurately identify species in the geological record, so it has been common for researchers to instead study biodiversity trends using data compiled at broader levels of biological classification, including the genus level, under the assumption that these patterns are effective proxies for what would be observed among species if the data were available. Miller has been involved in construction of The Paleobiology Database, an extensive public online resource that contains global genus- and species-level data, now permitting a direct, novel look at the similarities and differences between patterns at these two levels. Miller’s discussion aims to set the record straight as to when researchers can effectively use a genus as a proxy for a species and also when it’s inappropriate. This research is funded by the NASA Astrobiology Program.

Presenter: Arnold Miller, UC professor of geology

A Novel New Method for Examining the Distribution of Pores in Rocks

Oil and gas companies take an interest in the porosity of sedimentary rocks because those open spaces can be filled with fuel resources. Companies involved with hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) are also interested in porosity because it could be a source for storing wastewater as a result of fracking. In this unique study, UC researchers made pore-size measurements similar to those used in crystal size distribution (CSD) theory to determine distribution of pores as a function of their sizes, using thin sections of rock. In addition to providing accurate porosity distribution at a given depth, their approach can be extended to evaluate variation of pore spaces as a function of depth in a drill core, percent of pores in each size range, and pore types and pore geometry. The Texas Bureau of Economic Geology provided the rock samples used in the study. Funding for the study was supported by the Turkish Petroleum Corporation.

Presenter: Ugurlu Ibrahim, master’s student in geology

Co-author: Attila Kilinc, professor of geology

Researchers Turn to 3-D Technology to Examine the Formation of Cliffband Landscapes

A blend of photos and technology takes a new twist on studying cliff landscapes and how they were formed. The method called Structure-From-Motion Photogrammetry – computational photo image processing techniques – is used to study the formation of cliff landscapes in Colorado and Utah and to understand how the layered rock formations in the cliffs are affected by erosion.

Presenter: Dylan Ward, UC assistant professor of geology

Testing the Links Between Climate and Sedimentation in the Atacama Desert, Northern Chile

The Atacama Desert is used as an analog for understanding the surface of Mars. In some localities, there has been no activity for millions of years. UC researchers have been working along the flank of the Andes Mountains in northern Chile, and this particular examination focuses on the large deposits of sediment that are transported down the plateau and gather at the base. The researchers are finding that their samples are not reflecting the million-year-old relics previously found on such expeditions, but may indicate more youthful activity possibly resulting from climatic events. The research is supported by a $273,634 grant from the National Science Foundation to explore glacio-geomorphic constraints on the climate history of subtropical northern Chile.

Presenter: Jason Cesta, UC geology master’s student

Co-author: Dylan Ward, UC assistant professor of geology

Uncovering the Explosive Mysteries Surrounding the Manganese of Northeast Bulgaria

UC’s geology collections hold minerals from field expeditions around the world, including manganese from the Obrochishte mines of northeastern Bulgaria. Found in the region’s sedimentary rock, manganese can be added to metals such as steel to improve strength. It’s widely believed that these manganese formations were the result of ocean water composition at the time the sediments were deposited in the ocean. In this presentation, UC researchers present new information on why they believe the manganese formations resulted from volcanic eruptions, perhaps during the Rupelian stage of the geologic time scale, when bentonite clay minerals were formed. The presentation evolved from an advance class project last spring under the direction of Warren Huff, a UC professor of geology.

Presenter: Jason Cesta, UC geology master’s student

Co-authors: Warren Huff, UC professor of geology; Christopher Aucoin; Michael Harrell; Thomas Malgieri; Barry Maynard; Cameron Schwalbach; Ibrahim Ugurlu; Antony Winrod

Two UC researchers will chair sessions at the GSA meeting: Doctoral student Gary Motz will chair the session, “Topics in Paleoecology: Modern Analogues and Ancient Systems,” on Oct. 19. Matt Vrazo, also a doctoral student in geology, is chairing “Paleontology: Trace Fossils, Taphonomy and Exceptional Preservation” on Oct. 21, and will present, “Taphonomic and Ecological Controls on Eurypterid Lagerstäten: A Model for Preservation in the Mid-Paleozoic.”


UC’s nationally ranked Department of Geology conducts field research around the world in areas spanning paleontology, quaternary geology, geomorphology, sedimentology, stratigraphy, tectonics, environmental geology and biogeochemistry.

The Geological Society of America, founded in 1888, is a scientific society with more than 26,500 members from academia, government, and industry in more than 100 countries. Through its meetings, publications, and programs, GSA enhances the professional growth of its members and promotes the geosciences in the service of humankind.

Taking the pulse of mountain formation in the Andes

Sedimentary deposits near Cerdas in the Altiplano plateau of Bolivia are shown. These rocks contain ancient soils used to decipher the surface temperature and surface uplift history of the southern Altiplano. -  Photo by Carmala Garzione/University of Rochester.
Sedimentary deposits near Cerdas in the Altiplano plateau of Bolivia are shown. These rocks contain ancient soils used to decipher the surface temperature and surface uplift history of the southern Altiplano. – Photo by Carmala Garzione/University of Rochester.

Scientists have long been trying to understand how the Andes and other broad, high-elevation mountain ranges were formed. New research by Carmala Garzione, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester, and colleagues sheds light on the mystery.

In a paper published in the latest Earth and Planetary Science Letters, Garzione explains that the Altiplano plateau in the central Andes-and most likely the entire mountain range-was formed through a series of rapid growth spurts.

“This study provides increasing evidence that the plateau formed through periodic rapid pulses, not through a continuous, gradual uplift of the surface, as was traditionally thought,” said Garzione. “In geologic terms, rapid means rising one kilometer or more over several millions of years, which is very impressive.”

It’s been understood that the Andes mountain range has been growing as the Nazca oceanic plate slips underneath the South American continental plate, causing the Earth’s crust to shorten (by folding and faulting) and thicken. But that left two questions: How quickly have the Andes risen to their current height, and what was the actual process that enabled their rise?

Several years ago (2006-2008), Garzione and several colleagues provided the first estimates of the timing and rates of the surface uplift of the central Andes (“Mountain Ranges Rise Much More Rapidly than Geologists Expected”) by measuring the ancient surface temperatures and rainfall compositions preserved in the soils of the central Altiplano, a plateau in Bolivia and Peru that sits about 12,000 feet above sea level. Garzione concluded that portions of the dense lower crust and upper mantle that act like an anchor on the base of the crust are periodically detached and sink through the mantle as the thickened continental plate heats up. Detachment of this dense anchor allows the Earth’s low density upper crust to rebound and rise rapidly.

More recently, Garzione and Andrew Leier, an assistant professor of Earth and Ocean Sciences at the University of South Carolina, used a relatively new temperature-recording technique in two separate studies in different regions of the Andes to determine whether pulses of rapid surface uplift are the norm, or the exception, for the formation of mountain ranges like the Andes.

Garzione and Leier (“Stable isotope evidence for multiple pulses of rapid surface uplift in the Central Andes, Bolivia”) both focused on the bonding behavior of carbon and oxygen isotopes in the mineral calcite that precipitated from rainwater; their results were similar.

Garzione worked in the southern Altiplano, collecting climate records preserved in ancient soils at both low elevations (close to sea level), where temperatures remained warm over the history of the Andes, and at high elevations where temperatures should have cooled as the mountains rose. The calcite found in the soil contains both the lighter isotopes of carbon and oxygen-12C and 16O-as well as the rare heavier isotopes-13C and 18O. Paleo-temperature estimates from calcite rely on the fact that heavy isotopes form stronger bonds. At lower temperatures, where atoms vibrate more slowly, the heavy isotope 13C-18O bonds would be more difficult to break, resulting in a higher concentration of 13C-18O bonds in calcite, compared to what is found at warmer temperatures. By measuring the abundance of heavy isotope bonds in both low elevation (warm) sites and high elevation (cooler) sites over time, Garzione used the temperature difference between the sites to estimate the elevation of various layers of ancient soils at specific points in time.

She found that the southern Altiplano region rose by about 2.5 kilometers between 16 million and 9 million years ago, which is considered a rapid rate in geologic terms. Garzione speculates that the pulsing action relates to a dense root that grows at the boundary of the lower crust and upper mantle. As the oceanic plate slips under the continental plate, the continental plate shortens and thickens, increasing the pressure on the lower crust. The basaltic composition of the lower crust converts to a very high-density rock called eclogite, which serves as an anchor to the low-density upper crust. As this root is forced deeper into the hotter part of the mantle, it heats to a temperature where it can be rapidly removed (over several million years), resulting in the rapid rise of the mountain range.

“What we are learning is that the Altiplano plateau formed by pulses of rapid surface uplift over several million years, separated by long periods (several tens of million years) of stable elevations,” said Garzione. “We suspect this process is typical of other high-elevation ranges, but more research is needed before we know for certain.”

The Goldilocks principle: New hypothesis explains earth’s continued habitability

Researchers from USC and Nanjing University in China have documented evidence suggesting that part of the reason that the Earth has become neither sweltering like Venus nor frigid like Mars lies with a built-in atmospheric carbon dioxide regulator – the geologic cycles that churn up the planet’s rocky surface.

Scientists have long known that “fresh” rock pushed to the surface via mountain formation effectively acts as a kind of sponge, soaking up the greenhouse gas CO2. Left unchecked, however, that process would simply deplete atmospheric CO2 levels to a point that would plunge the Earth into an eternal winter within a few million years during the formation of large mountain ranges like the Himalayas – which has clearly not happened.

And while volcanoes have long been pointed to as a source of carbon dioxide, alone they cannot balance out the excess uptake of carbon dioxide by large mountain ranges. Instead, it turns out that “fresh” rock exposed by uplift also emits carbon through a chemical weathering process, which replenishes the atmospheric carbon dioxide at a comparable rate.

“Our presence on Earth is dependent upon this carbon cycle. This is why life is able to survive,” said Mark Torres, lead author of a study disclosing the findings that appears in Nature on March 20. Torres, a doctoral fellow at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, and a fellow at the Center for Dark Energy Biosphere Investigations (C-DEBI), collaborated with Joshua West, professor of Earth Sciences at USC Dornsife, and Gaojun Li of Nanjing University in China.

While human-made atmospheric carbon dioxide increases are currently driving significant changes in the Earth’s climate, the geologic system has kept things balanced for million of years.

“The Earth is a bit like a big, natural recycler,” West said. Torres and West studied rocks taken from the Andes mountain range in Peru and found that weathering processes affecting rocks released far more carbon than previously estimated, which motivated them to consider the global implications of CO2 release during mountain formation.

The researchers noted that rapid erosion in the Andes unearths abundant pyrite – the shiny mineral known as “fool’s gold” because of its deceptive appearance – and its chemical breakdown produces acids that release CO2 from other minerals. These observations motivated them to consider the global implications of CO2 release during mountain formation.

Like many other large mountain ranges, such as the great Himalayas, the Andes began to form during the Cenozoic period, which began about 60 million years ago and happened to coincide with a major perturbation in the cycling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Using marine records of the long-term carbon cycle, Torres, West, and Li reconstructed the balance between CO2 release and uptake caused by the uplift of large mountain ranges and found that the release of CO2 release by rock weathering may have played a large, but thus far unrecognized, role in regulating the concentration of atmospheric carbon dioxide over the last roughly 60 million years.

New study determines more accurate method to date tropical glacier moraines

The Quelccaya Ice Cap, the world's largest tropical ice sheet, is rapidly melting. -  Meredith Kelly
The Quelccaya Ice Cap, the world’s largest tropical ice sheet, is rapidly melting. – Meredith Kelly

A Dartmouth-led team has found a more accurate method to determine the ages of boulders deposited by tropical glaciers, findings that will likely influence previous research of how climate change has impacted ice masses around the equator.

The study appears in the journal Quaternary Geochronology. A PDF of the study is available on request.

Scientists use a variety of dating methods to determine the ages of glacial moraines around the world, from the poles where glaciers are at sea level to the tropics where glaciers are high in the mountains. Moraines are sedimentary deposits that mark the past extents of glaciers. Since glaciers respond sensitively to climate, especially at high latitudes and high altitudes, the timing of glacial fluctuations marked by moraines can help scientists to better understand past climatic variations and how glaciers may respond to future changes.

In the tropics, glacial scientists commonly use beryllium-10 surface exposure dating. Beryllium-10 is an isotope of beryllium produced when cosmic rays strike bedrock that is exposed to air. Predictable rates of decay tell scientists how long ago the isotope was generated and suggest that the rock was covered in ice before then. Elevation, latitude and other factors affect the rate at which beryllium-10 is produced, but researchers typically use rates taken from calibration sites scattered around the globe rather than rates locally calibrated at the sites being studied.

The Dartmouth-led team looked at beryllium-10 concentrations in moraine boulders deposited by the Quelccaya Ice Cap, the largest ice mass in the tropics. Quelccaya, which sits 18,000 feet above sea level in the Peruvian Andes, has retreated significantly in recent decades. The researchers determined a new locally calibrated production rate that is at least 11 percent to 15 percent lower than the traditional global production rate.

“The use of our locally calibrated beryllium-10 production rate will change the surface exposure ages reported in previously published studies at low latitude, high altitude sites and may alter prior paleoclimate interpretations,” said Assistant Professor Meredith Kelly, the study’s lead author and a glacial geomorphologist at Dartmouth.

The new production rate yields beryllium-10 ages that are older than previously reported, which means the boulders were exposed for longer than previously estimated. Prior studies suggested glaciers in the Peruvian Andes advanced during early Holocene time 8,000 -10,000 years ago, a period thought to have been warm but perhaps wet in the Andes. But the new production rate pushes back the beryllium-10 ages to 11,000 -12,000 years ago when the tropics were cooler and drier. Also during this time, glaciers expanded in the northern hemisphere, which indicates a relationship between the climate mechanisms that caused cooling in the northern hemisphere and southern tropics.

The findings suggest the new production rate should be used to deliver more precise ages of moraines in low-latitude, high-altitude locations, particularly in the tropical Andes. Such precision can help scientists to more accurately reconstruct past glacial and climatic variations, Kelly said.

3-D Earth model developed at Sandia Labs more accurately pinpoints source of earthquakes, explosions

Sandia National Laboratories researcher Sandy Ballard and colleagues from Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed SALSA3D, a 3-D model of the Earth's mantle and crust designed to help pinpoint the location of all types of explosions. -  Photo by Randy Montoya, Sandia National Laboratories
Sandia National Laboratories researcher Sandy Ballard and colleagues from Sandia and Los Alamos National Laboratory have developed SALSA3D, a 3-D model of the Earth’s mantle and crust designed to help pinpoint the location of all types of explosions. – Photo by Randy Montoya, Sandia National Laboratories

During the Cold War, U.S. and international monitoring agencies could spot nuclear tests and focused on measuring their sizes. Today, they’re looking around the globe to pinpoint much smaller explosives tests.

Under the sponsorship of the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Office of Defense Nuclear Nonproliferation R&D, Sandia National Laboratories and Los Alamos National Laboratory have partnered to develop a 3-D model of the Earth’s mantle and crust called SALSA3D, or Sandia-Los Alamos 3D. The purpose of this model is to assist the US Air Force and the international Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty Organization (CTBTO) in Vienna, Austria, more accurately locate all types of explosions.

The model uses a scalable triangular tessellation and seismic tomography to map the Earth’s “compressional wave seismic velocity,” a property of the rocks and other materials inside the Earth that indicates how quickly compressional waves travel through them and is one way to accurately locate seismic events, Sandia geophysicist Sandy Ballard said. Compressional waves – measured first after seismic events – move the particles in rocks and other materials minute distances backward and forward between the location of the event and the station detecting it.

SALSA3D also reduces the uncertainty in the model’s predictions, an important feature for decision-makers who must take action when suspicious activity is detected, he added.

“When you have an earthquake or nuclear explosion, not only do you need to know where it happened, but also how well you know that. That’s a difficult problem for these big 3-D models. It’s mainly a computational problem,” Ballard said. “The math is not so tough, just getting it done is hard, and we’ve accomplished that.”

A Sandia team has been writing and refining code for the model since 2007 and is now demonstrating SALSA3D is more accurate than current models.

In recent tests, SALSA3D was able to predict the source of seismic events over a geographical area that was 26 percent smaller than the traditional one-dimensional model and 9 percent smaller than a recently developed Regional Seismic Travel Time (RSTT) model used with the one-dimensional model.

GeoTess software release

Sandia recently released SALSA3D’s framework – the triangular tessellated grid on which the model is built – to other Earth scientists, seismologists and the public. By standardizing the framework, the seismological research community can more easily share models of the Earth’s structure and global monitoring agencies can better test different models. Both activities are hampered by the plethora of models available today, Ballard said. (See box.)

“GeoTess makes models compatible and standardizes everything,” he said. “This would really facilitate sharing of different models, if everyone agreed on it.”

Seismologists and researchers worldwide can now download GeoTess, which provides a common model parameterization for multidimensional Earth models and a software support system that addresses the construction, population, storage and interrogation of data stored in the model. GeoTess is not specific to any particular data, so users have considerable flexibility in how they store information in the model. The free package, including source code, is being released under the very liberal BSD Open Source License. The code is available in Java and C++, with interfaces to the C++ version written in C and Fortran90. GeoTess has been tested on multiple platforms, including Linux, SunOS, MacOSX and Windows. GeoTess is available here.

When an explosion goes off, the energy travels through the Earth as waves that are picked up by seismometers at U.S. and international ground monitoring stations associated with nuclear explosion monitoring organizations worldwide. Scientists use these signals to determine the location.

They first predict the time taken for the waves to travel from their source through the Earth to each station. To calculate that, they have to know the seismic velocity of the Earth’s materials from the crust to the inner core, Ballard said.

“If you have material that has very high seismic velocity, the waves travel very quickly, but the energy travels less quickly through other kinds of materials, so it takes the signals longer to travel from the source to the receiver,” he says.

For the past 100 years, seismologists have predicted the travel time of seismic energy from source to receiver using one-dimensional models. These models, which are still widely used today, account only for radial variations in seismic velocity and ignore variations in geographic directions. They yield seismic event locations that are reasonably accurate, but not nearly as precise as locations calculated with high fidelity 3-D models.

Modern 3-D models of the Earth, like SALSA3D, account for distortions of the seismic wavefronts caused by minor lateral differences in the properties of rocks and other materials.

For example, waves are distorted when they move through a geological feature called a subduction zone, such as the one beneath the west coast of South America where one tectonic plate under the Pacific Ocean is diving underneath the Andes Mountains. This happens at about the rate at which fingernails grow, but, geologically speaking, that’s fast, Ballard said.

One-dimensional models, like the widely used ak135 developed in the 1990s, are good at predicting the travel time of waves when the distance from the source to the receiver is large because these waves spend most of their time traveling through the deepest, most homogenous parts of the Earth. They don’t do so well at predicting travel time to nearby events where the waves spend most of their time in the Earth’s crust or the shallowest parts of the mantle, both of which contain a larger variety of materials than the lower mantle and the Earth’s core.

RSTT, a previous model developed jointly by Sandia, Los Alamos and Lawrence Livermore national laboratories, tried to solve that problem and works best at ranges of about 60-1,200 miles (100-2,000 kilometers).

Still, “the biggest errors we get are close to the surface of the Earth. That’s where the most variability in materials is,” Ballard said.

Seismic tomography gives SALSA3D accuracy

Today, Earth scientists are mapping three dimensions: the radius, latitude and longitude.

Anyone who’s studied a globe or world atlas knows that the traditional grid of longitudinal and latitudinal lines work all right the closer you are to the equator, but at the poles, the lines are too close together. For nuclear explosion monitoring, Earth models must accurately characterize the polar regions even though they are remote because seismic waves travel under them, Ballard said.

Triangular tessellation solves that with nodes, or intersections of the triangles, that can be accurately modeled even at the poles. The triangles can be smaller where more detail is needed and larger in areas that require less detail, like the oceans. Plus the model extends into the Earth like columns of stacked pieces of pie without the rounded crust edges.

The way Sandia calculates the seismic velocities uses the same math that is used to detect a tumor in an MRI, except on a global, rather than a human, scale.

Sandia uses historical data from 118,000 earthquakes and 13,000 current and former monitoring stations worldwide collected by Los Alamos Lab’s Ground Truth catalog.

“We apply a process called seismic tomography where we take millions of observed travel times and invert them for the seismic velocities that would create that data set. It’s mathematically similar to doing linear regression, but on steroids,” Sandy says. Linear regression is a simple mathematical way to model the relationship between a known variable and one or more unknown variables. Because the Sandia team models hundreds of thousands of unknown variables, they apply a mathematical method called least squares to minimize the discrepancies between the data from previous seismic events and the predictions.

With 10 million data points, Sandia uses a distributed computer network with about 400 core processors to characterize the seismic velocity at every node.

Monitoring agencies could use SALSA3D to precompute the travel time from each station in their network to every point on Earth. When it comes time to compute the location of a new seismic event in real-time, source-to-receiver travel times can be computed in a millisecond and pinpoint the energy’s source in about a second, he said.

Uncertainty modeling a SALSA3D feature

But no model is perfect, so Sandia has developed a way to measure the uncertainty in each prediction SALSA3D makes, based on uncertainty in the velocity at each node and how that uncertainty affects the travel time prediction of each wave from a seismic event to each monitoring station.

SALSA3D estimates for the users at monitoring stations the most likely location of a seismic event and the amount of uncertainty in the answer to help inform their decisions.

International test ban treaties require that on-site inspections can only occur within a 1,000-square-kilometer (385-square-mile) area surrounding a suspected nuclear test site. Today, 3-D Earth models like SALSA3D are helping to meet and sometimes significantly exceed this threshold in most parts of the world.

“It’s extremely difficult to do because the problem is so large,” Ballard said. “But we’ve got to know it within 1,000 square kilometers or they might search in the wrong place.”

Molten magma can survive in upper crust for hundreds of millennia

The formations in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, in Yellowstone National Park, are an example of  silica-rich volcanic rock. -  Sarah Gelman/University of Washington
The formations in the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, in Yellowstone National Park, are an example of silica-rich volcanic rock. – Sarah Gelman/University of Washington

Reservoirs of silica-rich magma – the kind that causes the most explosive volcanic eruptions – can persist in Earth’s upper crust for hundreds of thousands of years without triggering an eruption, according to new University of Washington modeling research.

That means an area known to have experienced a massive volcanic eruption in the past, such as Yellowstone National Park, could have a large pool of magma festering beneath it and still not be close to going off as it did 600,000 years ago.

“You might expect to see a stewing magma chamber for a long period of time and it doesn’t necessarily mean an eruption is imminent,” said Sarah Gelman, a UW doctoral student in Earth and space sciences.

Recent research models have suggested that reservoirs of silica-rich magma, or molten rock, form on and survive for geologically short time scales – in the tens of thousands of years – in the Earth’s cold upper crust before they solidify. They also suggested that the magma had to be injected into the Earth’s crust at a high rate to reach a large enough volume and pressure to cause an eruption.

But Gelman and her collaborators took the models further, incorporating changes in the crystallization behavior of silica-rich magma in the upper crust and temperature-dependent heat conductivity. They found that the magma could accumulate more slowly and remain molten for a much longer period than the models previously suggested.

Gelman is the lead author of a paper explaining the research published in the July edition of Geology. Co-authors are Francisco Gutiérrez, a former UW doctoral student now with Universidad de Chile in Santiago, and Olivier Bachmann, a former UW faculty member now with the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich.

There are two different kinds of magma and their relationship to one another is unclear. Plutonic magma freezes in the Earth’s crust and never erupts, but rather becomes a craggy granite formation like those commonly seen in Yosemite National Park. Volcanic magma is associated with eruptions, whether continuous “oozing” types of eruption such as Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano or more explosive eruptions such as Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines or Mount St. Helens in Washington state.

Some scientists have suggested that plutonic formations are what remain in the crust after major eruptions eject volcanic material. Gelman believes it is possible that magma chambers in the Earth’s crust could consist of a core of partially molten material feeding volcanoes surrounded by more crystalline regions that ultimately turn into plutonic rock. It is also possible the two rock types develop independently, but those questions remain to be answered, she said.

The new work suggests that molten magma reservoirs in the crust can persist for far longer than some scientists believe. Silica content is a way of judging how the magma has been affected by being in the crust, Gelman said. As the magma is forced up a column from lower in the Earth to the crust, it begins to crystallize. Crystals start to drop out as the magma moves higher, leaving the remaining molten rock with higher silica content.

“These time scales are in the hundreds of thousands, even up to a million, years and these chambers can sit there for that long,” she said.

Even if the molten magma begins to solidify before it erupts, that is a long process, she added. As the magma cools, more crystals form giving the rock a kind of mushy consistency. It is still molten and capable of erupting, but it will behave differently than magma that is much hotter and has fewer crystals.

The implications are significant for volcanic “arcs,” found near subduction zones where one of Earth’s tectonic plates is diving beneath another. Arcs are found in various parts of the world, including the Andes Mountains of South America and the Cascades Range of the Pacific Northwest.

Scientists have developed techniques to detect magma pools beneath these arcs, but they cannot determine how long the reservoirs have been there. Because volcanic magma becomes more silica-rich with time, its explosive potential increases.

“If you see melt in an area, it’s important to know how long that melt has been around to determine whether there is eruptive potential or not,” Gelman said. “If you image it today, does that mean it could not have been there 300,000 years ago? Previous models have said it couldn’t have been. Our model says it could. That doesn’t mean it was there, but it could have been there.”

Discovery of 1,800-year-old ‘Rosetta Stone’ for tropical ice cores

This photo from a 1977 expedition to Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru shows clearly defined annual layers of ice and dust visible in the ice cap's margin. Researchers at the Ohio State University are using a set of ice cores taken from Quelccaya as a 'Rosetta Stone' for studying other ice cores taken from around the world. -  Photo by Lonnie Thompson, Courtesy of Ohio State University.
This photo from a 1977 expedition to Quelccaya Ice Cap in Peru shows clearly defined annual layers of ice and dust visible in the ice cap’s margin. Researchers at the Ohio State University are using a set of ice cores taken from Quelccaya as a ‘Rosetta Stone’ for studying other ice cores taken from around the world. – Photo by Lonnie Thompson, Courtesy of Ohio State University.

Two annually dated ice cores drawn from the tropical Peruvian Andes reveal Earth’s tropical climate history in unprecedented detail-year by year, for nearly 1,800 years.

Researchers at The Ohio State University retrieved the cores from a Peruvian ice cap in 2003, and then noticed some startling similarities to other ice cores that they had retrieved from Tibet and the Himalayas. Patterns in the chemical composition of certain layers matched up, even though the cores were taken from opposite sides of the planet.

In the April 4, 2013 online edition of the journal Science Express, they describe the find, which they call the first annually resolved “Rosetta Stone” with which to compare other climate histories from Earth’s tropical and subtropical regions over the last two millennia.

The cores provide a new tool for researchers to study Earth’s past climate, and better understand the climate changes that are happening today.

“These ice cores provide the longest and highest-resolution tropical ice core record to date,” said Lonnie Thompson, distinguished university professor of earth sciences at Ohio State and lead author of the study.

“In fact, having drilled ice cores throughout the tropics for more than 30 years, we now know that this is the highest-resolution tropical ice core record that is likely to be retrieved.”

The new cores, drilled from Peru’s Quelccaya Ice Cap, are special because most of their 1,800-year history exists as clearly defined layers of light and dark: light from the accumulated snow of the wet season, and dark from the accumulated dust of the dry season.

They are also special because of where they formed, atop the high Andean altiplano in southern Peru. Most of the moisture in the area comes from the east, in snowstorms fueled by moist air rising from the Amazon Basin. But the ice core-derived climate records from the Andes are also impacted from the west-specifically by El Niño, a temporary change in climate, which is driven by sea surface temperatures in the tropical Pacific.

El Niño thus leaves its mark on the Quelccaya ice cap as a chemical signature (especially in oxygen isotopes) indicating sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean over much of the past 1,800 years.

“We have been able to derive a proxy for sea surface temperatures that reaches back long before humans were able to make such measurements, and long before humans began to affect Earth’s climate,” Thompson said.

Ellen Mosley-Thompson, distinguished university professor of geography at Ohio State and director of the Byrd Polar Research Center, explained that the 2003 expedition to Quelccaya was the culmination of 20 years of work.

The Thompsons have drilled ice cores from glaciers atop the most remote areas of the planet-the Chinese Himalayas, the Tibetan Plateau, Kilimanjaro in Africa, and Papua Indonesia among others-to gauge Earth’s past climate. Each new core has provided a piece of the puzzle, as the researchers measured the concentrations of key chemicals preserved in thousands of years of accumulated ice.

A 1983 trip to Quelccaya yielded cores that earned the research team their first series of papers in Science. The remoteness of the site and the technology available at the time limited the quality of samples they could obtain, however. The nearest road was a two-day walk from the ice cap, so they were forced to melt the cores in the field and carry samples back as bottles of water. This made some chemical measurements impossible, and diminished the time resolution available from the cores.

“Due to the remoteness of the ice cap, we had to develop new tools such as a light-weight drill powered by solar panels to collect the 1983 cores. However, we knew there was much more information the cores could provide” Mosley-Thompson said. “Now the ice cap is just a six-hour walk from a new access road where a freezer truck can be positioned to preserve the cores. So we can now make better dust measurements along with a suite of chemical analyses that we couldn’t make before.”

The cores will provide a permanent record for future use by climate scientists, Thompson added. This is very important, as plants captured by the advancing ice cap 6,000 years ago are now emerging along its retreating margins, which shows that Quelccaya is now smaller than it has been in six thousand years.

“The frozen history from this tropical ice cap-which is melting away as Earth continues to warm-is archived in freezers at -30ºC so that creative people will have access to it 20 years from now, using instruments and techniques that don’t even exist today,” he said.

Earth’s past gives clues to future changes

Scientists are a step closer to predicting when and where earthquakes will occur after taking a fresh look at the formation of the Andes, which began 45 million years ago.

Published today in Nature, research led by Dr Fabio Capitanio of Monash University’s School of Geosciences describes a new approach to plate tectonics. It is the first model to go beyond illustrating how plates move, and explain why.

Dr Capitanio said that although the theory had been applied only to one plate boundary so far, it had broader application.

Understanding the forces driving tectonic plates will allow researchers to predict shifts and their consequences, including the formation of mountain ranges, opening and closing of oceans, and earthquakes.

Dr Capitanio said existing theories of plate tectonics had failed to explain several features of the development of the Andes, motivating him to take a different approach.

“We knew that the Andes resulted from the subduction of one plate, under another; however, a lot was unexplained. For example, the subduction began 125 million years ago, but the mountains only began to form 45 million years ago. This lag was not understood,” Dr Capitanio said.

“The model we developed explains the timing of the Andes formation and unique features such as the curvature of the mountain chain.”

Dr Capitanio said the traditional approach to plate tectonics, to work back from data, resulted in models with strong descriptive, but no predictive power.

“Existing models allow you to describe the movement of the plates as it is happening, but you can’t say when they will stop, or whether they will speed up, and so on.

“I developed a three-dimensional, physical model – I used physics to predict the behaviour of tectonic plates. Then, I applied data tracing the Andes back 60 million years. It matched.”

Collaborators on the project were Dr Claudio Faccenna of Universita Roma Tre, Dr Sergio Zlotnik of UPC-Barcelona Tech, and Dr David R Stegman of University of California San Diego. The researchers will continue to develop the model by applying it to other subduction zones.