Rare 2.5-billion-year-old rocks reveal hot spot of sulfur-breathing bacteria

Gold miners prospecting in a mountainous region of Brazil drilled this 590-foot cylinder of bedrock from the Neoarchaean Eon, which provides rare evidence of conditions on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. -  Alan J. Kaufman
Gold miners prospecting in a mountainous region of Brazil drilled this 590-foot cylinder of bedrock from the Neoarchaean Eon, which provides rare evidence of conditions on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. – Alan J. Kaufman

Wriggle your toes in a marsh’s mucky bottom sediment and you’ll probably inhale a rotten egg smell, the distinctive odor of hydrogen sulfide gas. That’s the biochemical signature of sulfur-using bacteria, one of Earth’s most ancient and widespread life forms.

Among scientists who study the early history of our 4.5 billion-year-old planet, there is a vigorous debate about the evolution of sulfur-dependent bacteria. These simple organisms arose at a time when oxygen levels in the atmosphere were less than one-thousandth of what they are now. Living in ocean waters, they respired (or breathed in) sulfate, a form of sulfur, instead of oxygen. But how did that sulfate reach the ocean, and when did it become abundant enough for living things to use it?

New research by University of Maryland geology doctoral student Iadviga Zhelezinskaia offers a surprising answer. Zhelezinskaia is the first researcher to analyze the biochemical signals of sulfur compounds found in 2.5 billion-year-old carbonate rocks from Brazil. The rocks were formed on the ocean floor in a geologic time known as the Neoarchaean Eon. They surfaced when prospectors drilling for gold in Brazil punched a hole into bedrock and pulled out a 590-foot-long core of ancient rocks.

In research published Nov. 7, 2014 in the journal Science, Zhelezinskaia and three co-authors–physicist John Cliff of the University of Western Australia and geologists Alan Kaufman and James Farquhar of UMD–show that bacteria dependent on sulfate were plentiful in some parts of the Neoarchaean ocean, even though sea water typically contained about 1,000 times less sulfate than it does today.

“The samples Iadviga measured carry a very strong signal that sulfur compounds were consumed and altered by living organisms, which was surprising,” says Farquhar. “She also used basic geochemical models to give an idea of how much sulfate was in the oceans, and finds the sulfate concentrations are very low, much lower than previously thought.”

Geologists study sulfur because it is abundant and combines readily with other elements, forming compounds stable enough to be preserved in the geologic record. Sulfur has four naturally occurring stable isotopes–atomic signatures left in the rock record that scientists can use to identify the elements’ different forms. Researchers measuring sulfur isotope ratios in a rock sample can learn whether the sulfur came from the atmosphere, weathering rocks or biological processes. From that information about the sulfur sources, they can deduce important information about the state of the atmosphere, oceans, continents and biosphere when those rocks formed.

Farquhar and other researchers have used sulfur isotope ratios in Neoarchaean rocks to show that soon after this period, Earth’s atmosphere changed. Oxygen levels soared from just a few parts per million to almost their current level, which is around 21 percent of all the gases in the atmosphere. The Brazilian rocks Zhelezinskaia sampled show only trace amounts of oxygen, a sign they were formed before this atmospheric change.

With very little oxygen, the Neoarchaean Earth was a forbidding place for most modern life forms. The continents were probably much drier and dominated by volcanoes that released sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. Temperatures probably ranged between 0 and 100 degrees Celsius (32 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit), warm enough for liquid oceans to form and microbes to grow in them.

Rocks 2.5 billion years old or older are extremely rare, so geologists’ understanding of the Neoarchaean are based on a handful of samples from a few small areas, such as Western Australia, South Africa and Brazil. Geologists theorize that Western Australia and South Africa were once part of an ancient supercontinent called Vaalbara. The Brazilian rock samples are comparable in age, but they may not be from the same supercontinent, Zhelezinskaia says.

Most of the Neoarchaean rocks studied are from Western Australia and South Africa and are black shale, which forms when fine dust settles on the sea floor. The Brazilian prospector’s core contains plenty of black shale and a band of carbonate rock, formed below the surface of shallow seas, in a setting that probably resembled today’s Bahama Islands. Black shale usually contains sulfur-bearing pyrite, but carbonate rock typically does not, so geologists have not focused on sulfur signals in Neoarchaean carbonate rocks until now.

Zhelezinskaia “chose to look at a type of rock that others generally avoided, and what she saw was spectacularly different,” said Kaufman. “It really opened our eyes to the implications of this study.”

The Brazilian carbonate rocks’ isotopic ratios showed they formed in ancient seabed containing sulfate from atmospheric sources, not continental rock. And the isotopic ratios also showed that Neoarchaean bacteria were plentiful in the sediment, respiring sulfate and emitted hydrogen sulfide–the same process that goes on today as bacteria recycle decaying organic matter into minerals and gases.

How could the sulfur-dependent bacteria have thrived during a geologic time when sulfur levels were so low? “It seems that they were in shallow water, where evaporation may have been high enough to concentrate the sulfate, and that would make it abundant enough to support the bacteria,” says Zhelezinskaia.

Zhelezinskaia is now analyzing carbonate rocks of the same age from Western Australia and South Africa, to see if the pattern holds true for rocks formed in other shallow water environments. If it does, the results may change scientists’ understanding of one of Earth’s earliest biological processes.

“There is an ongoing debate about when sulfate-reducing bacteria arose and how that fits into the evolution of life on our planet,” says Farquhar. “These rocks are telling us the bacteria were there 2.5 billion years ago, and they were doing something significant enough that we can see them today.”

###

This research was supported by the Fulbright Program (Grantee ID 15110620), the NASA Astrobiology Institute (Grant No. NNA09DA81A) and the National Science Foundation Frontiers in Earth-System Dynamics program (Grant No. 432129). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

“Large sulfur isotope fractionations associated with Neoarchaean microbial sulfate reductions,” Iadviga Zhelezinskaia, Alan J. Kaufman, James Farquhar and John Cliff, was published Nov. 7, 2014 in Science. Download the abstract after 2 p.m. U.S. Eastern time, Nov. 6, 2014: http://www.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/science.1256211

James Farquhar home page

http://www.geol.umd.edu/directory.php?id=13

Alan J. Kaufman home page

http://www.geol.umd.edu/directory.php?id=15

Iadviga Zhelezinskaia home page

http://www.geol.umd.edu/directory.php?id=66

Media Relations Contact: Abby Robinson, 301-405-5845, abbyr@umd.edu

Writer: Heather Dewar

Rare 2.5-billion-year-old rocks reveal hot spot of sulfur-breathing bacteria

Gold miners prospecting in a mountainous region of Brazil drilled this 590-foot cylinder of bedrock from the Neoarchaean Eon, which provides rare evidence of conditions on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. -  Alan J. Kaufman
Gold miners prospecting in a mountainous region of Brazil drilled this 590-foot cylinder of bedrock from the Neoarchaean Eon, which provides rare evidence of conditions on Earth 2.5 billion years ago. – Alan J. Kaufman

Wriggle your toes in a marsh’s mucky bottom sediment and you’ll probably inhale a rotten egg smell, the distinctive odor of hydrogen sulfide gas. That’s the biochemical signature of sulfur-using bacteria, one of Earth’s most ancient and widespread life forms.

Among scientists who study the early history of our 4.5 billion-year-old planet, there is a vigorous debate about the evolution of sulfur-dependent bacteria. These simple organisms arose at a time when oxygen levels in the atmosphere were less than one-thousandth of what they are now. Living in ocean waters, they respired (or breathed in) sulfate, a form of sulfur, instead of oxygen. But how did that sulfate reach the ocean, and when did it become abundant enough for living things to use it?

New research by University of Maryland geology doctoral student Iadviga Zhelezinskaia offers a surprising answer. Zhelezinskaia is the first researcher to analyze the biochemical signals of sulfur compounds found in 2.5 billion-year-old carbonate rocks from Brazil. The rocks were formed on the ocean floor in a geologic time known as the Neoarchaean Eon. They surfaced when prospectors drilling for gold in Brazil punched a hole into bedrock and pulled out a 590-foot-long core of ancient rocks.

In research published Nov. 7, 2014 in the journal Science, Zhelezinskaia and three co-authors–physicist John Cliff of the University of Western Australia and geologists Alan Kaufman and James Farquhar of UMD–show that bacteria dependent on sulfate were plentiful in some parts of the Neoarchaean ocean, even though sea water typically contained about 1,000 times less sulfate than it does today.

“The samples Iadviga measured carry a very strong signal that sulfur compounds were consumed and altered by living organisms, which was surprising,” says Farquhar. “She also used basic geochemical models to give an idea of how much sulfate was in the oceans, and finds the sulfate concentrations are very low, much lower than previously thought.”

Geologists study sulfur because it is abundant and combines readily with other elements, forming compounds stable enough to be preserved in the geologic record. Sulfur has four naturally occurring stable isotopes–atomic signatures left in the rock record that scientists can use to identify the elements’ different forms. Researchers measuring sulfur isotope ratios in a rock sample can learn whether the sulfur came from the atmosphere, weathering rocks or biological processes. From that information about the sulfur sources, they can deduce important information about the state of the atmosphere, oceans, continents and biosphere when those rocks formed.

Farquhar and other researchers have used sulfur isotope ratios in Neoarchaean rocks to show that soon after this period, Earth’s atmosphere changed. Oxygen levels soared from just a few parts per million to almost their current level, which is around 21 percent of all the gases in the atmosphere. The Brazilian rocks Zhelezinskaia sampled show only trace amounts of oxygen, a sign they were formed before this atmospheric change.

With very little oxygen, the Neoarchaean Earth was a forbidding place for most modern life forms. The continents were probably much drier and dominated by volcanoes that released sulfur dioxide, carbon dioxide, methane and other greenhouse gases. Temperatures probably ranged between 0 and 100 degrees Celsius (32 to 212 degrees Fahrenheit), warm enough for liquid oceans to form and microbes to grow in them.

Rocks 2.5 billion years old or older are extremely rare, so geologists’ understanding of the Neoarchaean are based on a handful of samples from a few small areas, such as Western Australia, South Africa and Brazil. Geologists theorize that Western Australia and South Africa were once part of an ancient supercontinent called Vaalbara. The Brazilian rock samples are comparable in age, but they may not be from the same supercontinent, Zhelezinskaia says.

Most of the Neoarchaean rocks studied are from Western Australia and South Africa and are black shale, which forms when fine dust settles on the sea floor. The Brazilian prospector’s core contains plenty of black shale and a band of carbonate rock, formed below the surface of shallow seas, in a setting that probably resembled today’s Bahama Islands. Black shale usually contains sulfur-bearing pyrite, but carbonate rock typically does not, so geologists have not focused on sulfur signals in Neoarchaean carbonate rocks until now.

Zhelezinskaia “chose to look at a type of rock that others generally avoided, and what she saw was spectacularly different,” said Kaufman. “It really opened our eyes to the implications of this study.”

The Brazilian carbonate rocks’ isotopic ratios showed they formed in ancient seabed containing sulfate from atmospheric sources, not continental rock. And the isotopic ratios also showed that Neoarchaean bacteria were plentiful in the sediment, respiring sulfate and emitted hydrogen sulfide–the same process that goes on today as bacteria recycle decaying organic matter into minerals and gases.

How could the sulfur-dependent bacteria have thrived during a geologic time when sulfur levels were so low? “It seems that they were in shallow water, where evaporation may have been high enough to concentrate the sulfate, and that would make it abundant enough to support the bacteria,” says Zhelezinskaia.

Zhelezinskaia is now analyzing carbonate rocks of the same age from Western Australia and South Africa, to see if the pattern holds true for rocks formed in other shallow water environments. If it does, the results may change scientists’ understanding of one of Earth’s earliest biological processes.

“There is an ongoing debate about when sulfate-reducing bacteria arose and how that fits into the evolution of life on our planet,” says Farquhar. “These rocks are telling us the bacteria were there 2.5 billion years ago, and they were doing something significant enough that we can see them today.”

###

This research was supported by the Fulbright Program (Grantee ID 15110620), the NASA Astrobiology Institute (Grant No. NNA09DA81A) and the National Science Foundation Frontiers in Earth-System Dynamics program (Grant No. 432129). The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

“Large sulfur isotope fractionations associated with Neoarchaean microbial sulfate reductions,” Iadviga Zhelezinskaia, Alan J. Kaufman, James Farquhar and John Cliff, was published Nov. 7, 2014 in Science. Download the abstract after 2 p.m. U.S. Eastern time, Nov. 6, 2014: http://www.sciencemag.org/lookup/doi/10.1126/science.1256211

James Farquhar home page

http://www.geol.umd.edu/directory.php?id=13

Alan J. Kaufman home page

http://www.geol.umd.edu/directory.php?id=15

Iadviga Zhelezinskaia home page

http://www.geol.umd.edu/directory.php?id=66

Media Relations Contact: Abby Robinson, 301-405-5845, abbyr@umd.edu

Writer: Heather Dewar

Star Trekish, rafting scientists make bold discovery on Fraser River

SFU geographer Jeremy Venditti (orange jacket; black hat) is among several scientists aboard a Fraser River Rafting Expeditions measuring boat passing through a Fraser River canyon. -  SFU PAMR
SFU geographer Jeremy Venditti (orange jacket; black hat) is among several scientists aboard a Fraser River Rafting Expeditions measuring boat passing through a Fraser River canyon. – SFU PAMR

A Simon Fraser University-led team behind a new discovery has “?had the vision to go, like Star Trek, where no one has gone before: to a steep and violent bedrock canyon, with surprising results.”

That comment comes from a reviewer about a truly groundbreaking study just published in the journal Nature.
Scientists studying river flow in bedrock canyons for the first time have discovered that previous conceptions of flow and incision in bedrock-rivers are wrong.

SFU geography professor Jeremy Venditti led the team of SFU, University of Ottawa and University of British Columbia researchers on a scientific expedition on the Fraser River.

“For the first time, we used oceanographic instruments, commonly used to measure three-dimensional river flow velocity in low land rivers, to examine flow through steep bedrock canyons,” says Venditti. “The 3-D instruments capture downstream, cross-stream and vertical flow velocity.”

To carry out their Star Trek-like expedition, the researchers put their lives into the experienced hands of Fraser River Rafting Expeditions, which took them into 42 bedrock canyons. Equipped with acoustic Doppler current profilers to measure velocity fields, they rafted 486 kilometres of the Fraser River from Quesnel to Chilliwack. Their raft navigated turbulent waters normally only accessed by thrill-seeking river rafters.

“Current models of bedrock-rivers assume flow velocity is uniform, without changes in the downstream direction. Our results show this is not the case,” says Colin Rennie, an Ottawa U civil engineering professor.

“We observed a complicated flow field in which high velocity flow plunges down the bottom of the canyon forming a velocity inversion and then rises along the canyon walls. This has important implications for canyon erosion because the plunging flow patterns result in greater flow force applied to the bed.”

The scientists conclude that river flow in bedrock canyons is far more complex than first thought and the way scientists have linked climate, bedrock incision and the uplift of mountains needs to be rethought. They say the complexity of river flow plays an important role in deciding bedrock canyon morphology and river width.

“The links between the uplift of mountain ranges, bedrock incision by rivers and climate is one of the most important open questions in science,” notes Venditti. “The incision that occurs in bedrock canyons is driven by climate because the climate system controls precipitation and the amount of water carried in rivers. River flow drives the erosional mechanisms that cut valleys and allow the uplift of majestic mountain peaks.”

Venditti adds that river flow velocity in bedrock canyons also influences the delivery of sediment from mountain-rivers to lowland rivers.

“Sediment delivery controls water levels and stability of lowland rivers, which has important implications for lowland river management, flooding impacts to infrastructure, availability of fish habitat and more.

“Lowland river floodplains and deltas are the most densely populated places on earth, so understanding what is happening in mountain rivers is important because our continued development of these areas is significantly affected by what is happening upstream.”

Star Trekish, rafting scientists make bold discovery on Fraser River

SFU geographer Jeremy Venditti (orange jacket; black hat) is among several scientists aboard a Fraser River Rafting Expeditions measuring boat passing through a Fraser River canyon. -  SFU PAMR
SFU geographer Jeremy Venditti (orange jacket; black hat) is among several scientists aboard a Fraser River Rafting Expeditions measuring boat passing through a Fraser River canyon. – SFU PAMR

A Simon Fraser University-led team behind a new discovery has “?had the vision to go, like Star Trek, where no one has gone before: to a steep and violent bedrock canyon, with surprising results.”

That comment comes from a reviewer about a truly groundbreaking study just published in the journal Nature.
Scientists studying river flow in bedrock canyons for the first time have discovered that previous conceptions of flow and incision in bedrock-rivers are wrong.

SFU geography professor Jeremy Venditti led the team of SFU, University of Ottawa and University of British Columbia researchers on a scientific expedition on the Fraser River.

“For the first time, we used oceanographic instruments, commonly used to measure three-dimensional river flow velocity in low land rivers, to examine flow through steep bedrock canyons,” says Venditti. “The 3-D instruments capture downstream, cross-stream and vertical flow velocity.”

To carry out their Star Trek-like expedition, the researchers put their lives into the experienced hands of Fraser River Rafting Expeditions, which took them into 42 bedrock canyons. Equipped with acoustic Doppler current profilers to measure velocity fields, they rafted 486 kilometres of the Fraser River from Quesnel to Chilliwack. Their raft navigated turbulent waters normally only accessed by thrill-seeking river rafters.

“Current models of bedrock-rivers assume flow velocity is uniform, without changes in the downstream direction. Our results show this is not the case,” says Colin Rennie, an Ottawa U civil engineering professor.

“We observed a complicated flow field in which high velocity flow plunges down the bottom of the canyon forming a velocity inversion and then rises along the canyon walls. This has important implications for canyon erosion because the plunging flow patterns result in greater flow force applied to the bed.”

The scientists conclude that river flow in bedrock canyons is far more complex than first thought and the way scientists have linked climate, bedrock incision and the uplift of mountains needs to be rethought. They say the complexity of river flow plays an important role in deciding bedrock canyon morphology and river width.

“The links between the uplift of mountain ranges, bedrock incision by rivers and climate is one of the most important open questions in science,” notes Venditti. “The incision that occurs in bedrock canyons is driven by climate because the climate system controls precipitation and the amount of water carried in rivers. River flow drives the erosional mechanisms that cut valleys and allow the uplift of majestic mountain peaks.”

Venditti adds that river flow velocity in bedrock canyons also influences the delivery of sediment from mountain-rivers to lowland rivers.

“Sediment delivery controls water levels and stability of lowland rivers, which has important implications for lowland river management, flooding impacts to infrastructure, availability of fish habitat and more.

“Lowland river floodplains and deltas are the most densely populated places on earth, so understanding what is happening in mountain rivers is important because our continued development of these areas is significantly affected by what is happening upstream.”

Gorges are eradicated by downstream sweep erosion

Local surface uplift can block rivers, particularly in mountainous regions. The impounded water, however, always finds its way downstream, often cutting a narrow gorge into the rocks. Subsequent erosion of the rocks can lead to a complete eradication of this initial incision, until not a trace is left of the original breakthrough. In extreme cases the whole gorge disappears, leaving behind a broad valley with a flat floodplain. Previously, the assumption was that this transition from a narrow gorge to a wide valley was driven by gorge widening and the erosion of the walls of the gorges.

A team of scientists from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam has now revealed a new mechanism that drives this process of fluvial erosion (Nature Geoscience, 17.08.2014). The geoscientists analyzed the development of a gorge on the Da’an Chi river in Taiwan over a period of almost ten years. There, uplift that was caused by the Jiji earthquake of 1999 (magnitude 7.6), and that runs transverse to the river, had formed a blockage. Earthquakes of that size occur there every 300 to 500 years. “Before the quake there was no sign of a gorge at all in this riverbed, which is one and a half kilometers wide”, explains Kristen Cook of the GFZ. “We have here the world’s first real-time observation of the evolution of gorge width by fluvial erosion over the course of several years.” Currently the gorge is roughly a kilometer long, 25 meters wide and up to 17 meters deep. Initially, the gorge walls were eroded at a rate of five meters per year, and today are still retreating one and a half meters per year.

The scientists identified a hitherto unknown mechanism by which the gorge is destroyed. “Downstream sweep erosion” they termed this process. “A wide braided channel upstream of the gorge is necessary,” explains co-author Jens Turowski (GFZ). “The course of this channel changes regularly and it has to flow in sharp bends to run into the gorge. In these bends, the bed-load material that is transported by the river hits the upper edge of the gorge causing rapid erosion.” This mechanism gradually washes away all of the bedrock surrounding the gorge and, therefore, is the cause for the planation of the riverbed over the complete width of the valley. Assuming the current erosion rate of 17 meters per year, it will take here at the Da’an Chi River only 50 to 100 years until again a flat beveled channel again fills the valley. In contrast, lateral erosion in the gorge would be too slow to eradicate the gorge in the time of one earthquake cycle. The newly discovered downstream sweep erosion is far more effective.

Gorges are eradicated by downstream sweep erosion

Local surface uplift can block rivers, particularly in mountainous regions. The impounded water, however, always finds its way downstream, often cutting a narrow gorge into the rocks. Subsequent erosion of the rocks can lead to a complete eradication of this initial incision, until not a trace is left of the original breakthrough. In extreme cases the whole gorge disappears, leaving behind a broad valley with a flat floodplain. Previously, the assumption was that this transition from a narrow gorge to a wide valley was driven by gorge widening and the erosion of the walls of the gorges.

A team of scientists from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences in Potsdam has now revealed a new mechanism that drives this process of fluvial erosion (Nature Geoscience, 17.08.2014). The geoscientists analyzed the development of a gorge on the Da’an Chi river in Taiwan over a period of almost ten years. There, uplift that was caused by the Jiji earthquake of 1999 (magnitude 7.6), and that runs transverse to the river, had formed a blockage. Earthquakes of that size occur there every 300 to 500 years. “Before the quake there was no sign of a gorge at all in this riverbed, which is one and a half kilometers wide”, explains Kristen Cook of the GFZ. “We have here the world’s first real-time observation of the evolution of gorge width by fluvial erosion over the course of several years.” Currently the gorge is roughly a kilometer long, 25 meters wide and up to 17 meters deep. Initially, the gorge walls were eroded at a rate of five meters per year, and today are still retreating one and a half meters per year.

The scientists identified a hitherto unknown mechanism by which the gorge is destroyed. “Downstream sweep erosion” they termed this process. “A wide braided channel upstream of the gorge is necessary,” explains co-author Jens Turowski (GFZ). “The course of this channel changes regularly and it has to flow in sharp bends to run into the gorge. In these bends, the bed-load material that is transported by the river hits the upper edge of the gorge causing rapid erosion.” This mechanism gradually washes away all of the bedrock surrounding the gorge and, therefore, is the cause for the planation of the riverbed over the complete width of the valley. Assuming the current erosion rate of 17 meters per year, it will take here at the Da’an Chi River only 50 to 100 years until again a flat beveled channel again fills the valley. In contrast, lateral erosion in the gorge would be too slow to eradicate the gorge in the time of one earthquake cycle. The newly discovered downstream sweep erosion is far more effective.

Mine landslide triggered quakes

The April 10, 2013, landslide at Rio Tinto-Kennecott Utah Copper's Bingham Canyon mine contains enough debris to bury New York City's Central Park 66 feet deep, according to a new University of Utah study. The slide happened in the form of two rock avalanches 95 minutes apart. The first rock avalanche included grayer bedrock material seen around the margins of the lower half of the slide. The second rock avalanche is orange in color, both from bedrock and from waste rock from mining. The new study found the landslide triggered 16 small quakes. Such triggering has not been noted previously. The slide likely was the largest nonvolcanic landslide in North America's modern history. -  Kennecott Utah Copper.
The April 10, 2013, landslide at Rio Tinto-Kennecott Utah Copper’s Bingham Canyon mine contains enough debris to bury New York City’s Central Park 66 feet deep, according to a new University of Utah study. The slide happened in the form of two rock avalanches 95 minutes apart. The first rock avalanche included grayer bedrock material seen around the margins of the lower half of the slide. The second rock avalanche is orange in color, both from bedrock and from waste rock from mining. The new study found the landslide triggered 16 small quakes. Such triggering has not been noted previously. The slide likely was the largest nonvolcanic landslide in North America’s modern history. – Kennecott Utah Copper.

Last year’s gigantic landslide at a Utah copper mine probably was the biggest nonvolcanic slide in North America’s modern history, and included two rock avalanches that happened 90 minutes apart and surprisingly triggered 16 small earthquakes, University of Utah scientists discovered.

The landslide – which moved at an average of almost 70 mph and reached estimated speeds of at least 100 mph – left a deposit so large it “would cover New York’s Central Park with about 20 meters (66 feet) of debris,” the researchers report in the January 2014 cover study in the Geological Society of America magazine GSA Today.

While earthquakes regularly trigger landslides, the gigantic landslide the night of April 10, 2013, is the first known to have triggered quakes. The slide occurred in the form of two huge rock avalanches at 9:30 p.m. and 11:05 p.m. MDT at Rio Tinto-Kennecott Utah Copper’s open-pit Bingham Canyon Mine, 20 miles southwest of downtown Salt Lake City. Each rock avalanche lasted about 90 seconds.

While the slides were not quakes, they were measured by seismic scales as having magnitudes up to 5.1 and 4.9, respectively. The subsequent real quakes were smaller.

Kennecott officials closely monitor movements in the 107-year-old mine – which produces 25 percent of the copper used in the United States – and they recognized signs of increasing instability in the months before the slide, closing and removing a visitor center on the south edge of the 2.8-mile-wide, 3,182-foot-deep open pit, which the company claims is the world’s largest manmade excavation.

Landslides – including those at open-pit mines but excluding quake-triggered slides – killed more than 32,000 people during 2004-2011, the researchers say. But no one was hurt or died in the Bingham Canyon slide. The slide damaged or destroyed 14 haul trucks and three shovels and closed the mine’s main access ramp until November.

“This is really a geotechnical monitoring success story,” says the new study’s first author, Kris Pankow, associate director of the University of Utah Seismograph Stations and a research associate professor of geology and geophysics. “No one was killed, and yet now we have this rich dataset to learn more about landslides.”

There have been much bigger human-caused landslides on other continents, and much bigger prehistoric slides in North America, including one about five times larger than Bingham Canyon some 8,000 years ago at the mouth of Utah’s Zion Canyon.

But the Bingham Canyon Mine slide “is probably the largest nonvolcanic landslide in modern North American history,” said study co-author Jeff Moore, an assistant professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah.

There have been numerous larger, mostly prehistoric slides – some hundreds of times larger. Even the landslide portion of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption was 57 times larger than the Bingham Canyon slide.

News reports initially put the landslide cost at close to $1 billion, but that may end up lower because Kennecott has gotten the mine back in operation faster than expected.

Until now, the most expensive U.S. landslide was the 1983 Thistle slide in Utah, which cost an estimated $460 million to $940 million because the town of Thistle was abandoned, train tracks and highways were relocated and a drainage tunnel built.

Pankow and Moore conducted the study with several colleagues from the university’s College of Mines and Earth Sciences: J. Mark Hale, an information specialist at the Seismograph Stations; Keith Koper, director of the Seismograph Stations; Tex Kubacki, a graduate student in mining engineering; Katherine Whidden, a research seismologist; and Michael K. McCarter, professor of mining engineering.

The study was funded by state of Utah support of the University of Utah Seismograph Stations and by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Rockslides Measured up to 5.1 and 4.9 in Magnitude, but Felt Smaller

The University of Utah researchers say the Bingham Canyon slide was among the best-recorded in history, making it a treasure trove of data for studying slides.

Kennecott has estimated the landslide weighed 165 million tons. The new study estimated the slide came from a volume of rock roughly 55 million cubic meters (1.9 billion cubic feet). Rock in a landslide breaks up and expands, so Moore estimated the landslide deposit had a volume of 65 million cubic meters (2.3 billion cubic feet).

Moore calculated that not only would bury Central Park 66 feet deep, but also is equivalent to the amount of material in 21 of Egypt’s great pyramids of Giza.

The landslide’s two rock avalanches were not earthquakes but, like mine collapses and nuclear explosions, they were recorded on seismographs and had magnitudes that were calculated on three different scales:

  • The first slide at 9:30 p.m. MDT measured 5.1 in surface-wave magnitude, 2.5 in local or Richter magnitude, and 4.2 in duration or “coda” magnitude.

  • The second slide at 11:05 p.m. MDT measured 4.9 in surface-wave magnitude, 2.4 in Richter magnitude and 3.5 in coda magnitude.

Pankow says the larger magnitudes more accurately reflect the energy released by the rock avalanches, but the smaller Richter magnitudes better reflect what people felt – or didn’t feel, since the Seismograph Stations didn’t receive any such reports. That’s because the larger surface-wave magnitudes record low-frequency energy, while Richter and coda magnitudes are based on high-frequency seismic waves that people usually feel during real quakes.

So in terms of ground movements people might feel, the rock avalanches “felt like 2.5,” Pankow says. “If this was a normal tectonic earthquake of magnitude 5, all three magnitude scales would give us similar answers.”

The slides were detected throughout the Utah seismic network, including its most distant station some 250 miles south on the Utah-Arizona border, Pankow says.

The Landslide Triggered 16 Tremors

The second rock avalanche was followed immediately by a real earthquake measuring 2.5 in Richter magnitude and 3.0 in coda magnitude, then three smaller quakes – all less than one-half mile below the bottom of the mine pit.

The Utah researchers sped up recorded seismic data by 30 times to create an audio file in which the second part of the slide is heard as a deep rumbling, followed by sharp gunshot-like bangs from three of the subsequent quakes.

Later analysis revealed another 12 tiny quakes – measuring from 0.5 to minus 0.8 Richter magnitude. (A minus 1 magnitude has one-tenth the power of a hand grenade.) Six of these tiny tremors occurred between the two parts of the landslide, five happened during the two days after the slide, and one was detected 10 days later, on April 20. No quakes were detected during the 10 days before the double landslide.

“We don’t know of any case until now where landslides have been shown to trigger earthquakes,” Moore says. “It’s quite commonly the reverse.”

A Long, Fast Landslide Runout

The landslide, from top to bottom, fell 2,790 vertical feet, but its runout – the distance the slide traveled – was almost 10,072 feet, or just less than two miles.

“It was a bedrock landslide that had a characteristically fast and long runout – much longer than we would see for smaller rockfalls and rockslides,” Moore says.

While no one was present to measure the speed, rock avalanches typically move about 70 mph to 110 mph, while the fastest moved a quickly as 220 mph.

So at Bingham Canyon, “we can safely say the material was probably traveling at least 100 mph as it fell down the steepest part of the slope,” Moore says.

The researchers don’t know why the slide happened as two rock avalanches instead of one, but Moore says, “A huge volume like this can fail in one episode or in 10 episodes over hours.”

The Seismograph Stations also recorded infrasound waves from the landslide, which Pankow says are “sound waves traveling through the atmosphere that we don’t hear” because their frequencies are so low.

Both seismic and infrasound recordings detected differences between the landslide’s two rock avalanches. For example, the first avalanche had stronger peak energy at the end that was lacking in the second slide, Pankow says.

“We’d like to be able to use data like this to understand the physics of these large landslides,” Moore says.

The seismic and infrasound recordings suggest the two rock avalanches were similar in volume, but photos indicate the first slide contained more bedrock, while the second slide contained a higher proportion of mined waste rock – although both avalanches were predominantly bedrock.

Mine landslide triggered quakes

The April 10, 2013, landslide at Rio Tinto-Kennecott Utah Copper's Bingham Canyon mine contains enough debris to bury New York City's Central Park 66 feet deep, according to a new University of Utah study. The slide happened in the form of two rock avalanches 95 minutes apart. The first rock avalanche included grayer bedrock material seen around the margins of the lower half of the slide. The second rock avalanche is orange in color, both from bedrock and from waste rock from mining. The new study found the landslide triggered 16 small quakes. Such triggering has not been noted previously. The slide likely was the largest nonvolcanic landslide in North America's modern history. -  Kennecott Utah Copper.
The April 10, 2013, landslide at Rio Tinto-Kennecott Utah Copper’s Bingham Canyon mine contains enough debris to bury New York City’s Central Park 66 feet deep, according to a new University of Utah study. The slide happened in the form of two rock avalanches 95 minutes apart. The first rock avalanche included grayer bedrock material seen around the margins of the lower half of the slide. The second rock avalanche is orange in color, both from bedrock and from waste rock from mining. The new study found the landslide triggered 16 small quakes. Such triggering has not been noted previously. The slide likely was the largest nonvolcanic landslide in North America’s modern history. – Kennecott Utah Copper.

Last year’s gigantic landslide at a Utah copper mine probably was the biggest nonvolcanic slide in North America’s modern history, and included two rock avalanches that happened 90 minutes apart and surprisingly triggered 16 small earthquakes, University of Utah scientists discovered.

The landslide – which moved at an average of almost 70 mph and reached estimated speeds of at least 100 mph – left a deposit so large it “would cover New York’s Central Park with about 20 meters (66 feet) of debris,” the researchers report in the January 2014 cover study in the Geological Society of America magazine GSA Today.

While earthquakes regularly trigger landslides, the gigantic landslide the night of April 10, 2013, is the first known to have triggered quakes. The slide occurred in the form of two huge rock avalanches at 9:30 p.m. and 11:05 p.m. MDT at Rio Tinto-Kennecott Utah Copper’s open-pit Bingham Canyon Mine, 20 miles southwest of downtown Salt Lake City. Each rock avalanche lasted about 90 seconds.

While the slides were not quakes, they were measured by seismic scales as having magnitudes up to 5.1 and 4.9, respectively. The subsequent real quakes were smaller.

Kennecott officials closely monitor movements in the 107-year-old mine – which produces 25 percent of the copper used in the United States – and they recognized signs of increasing instability in the months before the slide, closing and removing a visitor center on the south edge of the 2.8-mile-wide, 3,182-foot-deep open pit, which the company claims is the world’s largest manmade excavation.

Landslides – including those at open-pit mines but excluding quake-triggered slides – killed more than 32,000 people during 2004-2011, the researchers say. But no one was hurt or died in the Bingham Canyon slide. The slide damaged or destroyed 14 haul trucks and three shovels and closed the mine’s main access ramp until November.

“This is really a geotechnical monitoring success story,” says the new study’s first author, Kris Pankow, associate director of the University of Utah Seismograph Stations and a research associate professor of geology and geophysics. “No one was killed, and yet now we have this rich dataset to learn more about landslides.”

There have been much bigger human-caused landslides on other continents, and much bigger prehistoric slides in North America, including one about five times larger than Bingham Canyon some 8,000 years ago at the mouth of Utah’s Zion Canyon.

But the Bingham Canyon Mine slide “is probably the largest nonvolcanic landslide in modern North American history,” said study co-author Jeff Moore, an assistant professor of geology and geophysics at the University of Utah.

There have been numerous larger, mostly prehistoric slides – some hundreds of times larger. Even the landslide portion of the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption was 57 times larger than the Bingham Canyon slide.

News reports initially put the landslide cost at close to $1 billion, but that may end up lower because Kennecott has gotten the mine back in operation faster than expected.

Until now, the most expensive U.S. landslide was the 1983 Thistle slide in Utah, which cost an estimated $460 million to $940 million because the town of Thistle was abandoned, train tracks and highways were relocated and a drainage tunnel built.

Pankow and Moore conducted the study with several colleagues from the university’s College of Mines and Earth Sciences: J. Mark Hale, an information specialist at the Seismograph Stations; Keith Koper, director of the Seismograph Stations; Tex Kubacki, a graduate student in mining engineering; Katherine Whidden, a research seismologist; and Michael K. McCarter, professor of mining engineering.

The study was funded by state of Utah support of the University of Utah Seismograph Stations and by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Rockslides Measured up to 5.1 and 4.9 in Magnitude, but Felt Smaller

The University of Utah researchers say the Bingham Canyon slide was among the best-recorded in history, making it a treasure trove of data for studying slides.

Kennecott has estimated the landslide weighed 165 million tons. The new study estimated the slide came from a volume of rock roughly 55 million cubic meters (1.9 billion cubic feet). Rock in a landslide breaks up and expands, so Moore estimated the landslide deposit had a volume of 65 million cubic meters (2.3 billion cubic feet).

Moore calculated that not only would bury Central Park 66 feet deep, but also is equivalent to the amount of material in 21 of Egypt’s great pyramids of Giza.

The landslide’s two rock avalanches were not earthquakes but, like mine collapses and nuclear explosions, they were recorded on seismographs and had magnitudes that were calculated on three different scales:

  • The first slide at 9:30 p.m. MDT measured 5.1 in surface-wave magnitude, 2.5 in local or Richter magnitude, and 4.2 in duration or “coda” magnitude.

  • The second slide at 11:05 p.m. MDT measured 4.9 in surface-wave magnitude, 2.4 in Richter magnitude and 3.5 in coda magnitude.

Pankow says the larger magnitudes more accurately reflect the energy released by the rock avalanches, but the smaller Richter magnitudes better reflect what people felt – or didn’t feel, since the Seismograph Stations didn’t receive any such reports. That’s because the larger surface-wave magnitudes record low-frequency energy, while Richter and coda magnitudes are based on high-frequency seismic waves that people usually feel during real quakes.

So in terms of ground movements people might feel, the rock avalanches “felt like 2.5,” Pankow says. “If this was a normal tectonic earthquake of magnitude 5, all three magnitude scales would give us similar answers.”

The slides were detected throughout the Utah seismic network, including its most distant station some 250 miles south on the Utah-Arizona border, Pankow says.

The Landslide Triggered 16 Tremors

The second rock avalanche was followed immediately by a real earthquake measuring 2.5 in Richter magnitude and 3.0 in coda magnitude, then three smaller quakes – all less than one-half mile below the bottom of the mine pit.

The Utah researchers sped up recorded seismic data by 30 times to create an audio file in which the second part of the slide is heard as a deep rumbling, followed by sharp gunshot-like bangs from three of the subsequent quakes.

Later analysis revealed another 12 tiny quakes – measuring from 0.5 to minus 0.8 Richter magnitude. (A minus 1 magnitude has one-tenth the power of a hand grenade.) Six of these tiny tremors occurred between the two parts of the landslide, five happened during the two days after the slide, and one was detected 10 days later, on April 20. No quakes were detected during the 10 days before the double landslide.

“We don’t know of any case until now where landslides have been shown to trigger earthquakes,” Moore says. “It’s quite commonly the reverse.”

A Long, Fast Landslide Runout

The landslide, from top to bottom, fell 2,790 vertical feet, but its runout – the distance the slide traveled – was almost 10,072 feet, or just less than two miles.

“It was a bedrock landslide that had a characteristically fast and long runout – much longer than we would see for smaller rockfalls and rockslides,” Moore says.

While no one was present to measure the speed, rock avalanches typically move about 70 mph to 110 mph, while the fastest moved a quickly as 220 mph.

So at Bingham Canyon, “we can safely say the material was probably traveling at least 100 mph as it fell down the steepest part of the slope,” Moore says.

The researchers don’t know why the slide happened as two rock avalanches instead of one, but Moore says, “A huge volume like this can fail in one episode or in 10 episodes over hours.”

The Seismograph Stations also recorded infrasound waves from the landslide, which Pankow says are “sound waves traveling through the atmosphere that we don’t hear” because their frequencies are so low.

Both seismic and infrasound recordings detected differences between the landslide’s two rock avalanches. For example, the first avalanche had stronger peak energy at the end that was lacking in the second slide, Pankow says.

“We’d like to be able to use data like this to understand the physics of these large landslides,” Moore says.

The seismic and infrasound recordings suggest the two rock avalanches were similar in volume, but photos indicate the first slide contained more bedrock, while the second slide contained a higher proportion of mined waste rock – although both avalanches were predominantly bedrock.

East Antarctica is sliding sideways

It’s official: East Antarctica is pushing West Antarctica around.

Now that West Antarctica is losing weight–that is, billions of tons of ice per year–its softer mantle rock is being nudged westward by the harder mantle beneath East Antarctica.

The discovery comes from researchers led by The Ohio State University, who have recorded GPS measurements that show West Antarctic bedrock is being pushed sideways at rates up to about twelve millimeters–about half an inch–per year. This movement is important for understanding current ice loss on the continent, and predicting future ice loss.

They reported the results on Thursday, Dec. 12 at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

Half an inch doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s actually quite dramatic compared to other areas of the planet, explained Terry Wilson, professor of earth sciences at Ohio State. Wilson leads POLENET, an international collaboration that has planted GPS and seismic sensors all over the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

She and her team weren’t surprised to detect the horizontal motion. After all, they’ve been using GPS to observe vertical motion on the continent since the 1990’s.

They were surprised, she said, to find the bedrock moving towards regions of greatest ice loss.

“From computer models, we knew that the bedrock should rebound as the weight of ice on top of it goes away,” Wilson said. “But the rock should spread out from the site where the ice used to be. Instead, we see movement toward places where there was the most ice loss.”

The seismic sensors explained why. By timing how fast seismic waves pass through the earth under Antarctica, the researchers were able to determine that the mantle regions beneath east and west are very different. West Antarctica contains warmer, softer rock, and East Antarctica has colder, harder rock.

Stephanie Konfal, a research associate with POLENET, pointed out that where the transition is most pronounced, the sideways movement runs perpendicular to the boundary between the two types of mantle.

She likened the mantle interface to a pot of honey.

“If you imagine that you have warm spots and cold spots in the honey, so that some of it is soft and some is hard,” Konfal said, “and if you press down on the surface of the honey with a spoon, the honey will move away from the spoon, but the movement won’t be uniform. The hard spots will push into the soft spots. And when you take the spoon away, the soft honey won’t uniformly flow back up to fill the void, because the hard honey is still pushing on it.”

Or, put another way, ice compressed West Antarctica’s soft mantle. Some ice has melted away, but the soft mantle isn’t filling back in uniformly, because East Antarctica’s harder mantle is pushing it sideways. The crust is just along for the ride.

This finding is significant, Konfal said, because we use these crustal motions to understand ice loss.

“We’re witnessing expected movements being reversed, so we know we really need computer models that can take lateral changes in mantle properties into account.”

Wilson said that such extreme differences in mantle properties are not seen elsewhere on the planet where glacial rebound is occurring.

“We figured Antarctica would be different,” she said. “We just didn’t know how different.”

Ohio State’s POLENET academic partners in the United States are Pennsylvania State University, Washington University, New Mexico Tech, Central Washington University, the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics and the University of Memphis. A host of international partners are part of the effort as well. The project is supported by the UNAVCO and IRIS-PASSCAL geodetic and seismic facilities.

East Antarctica is sliding sideways

It’s official: East Antarctica is pushing West Antarctica around.

Now that West Antarctica is losing weight–that is, billions of tons of ice per year–its softer mantle rock is being nudged westward by the harder mantle beneath East Antarctica.

The discovery comes from researchers led by The Ohio State University, who have recorded GPS measurements that show West Antarctic bedrock is being pushed sideways at rates up to about twelve millimeters–about half an inch–per year. This movement is important for understanding current ice loss on the continent, and predicting future ice loss.

They reported the results on Thursday, Dec. 12 at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco.

Half an inch doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s actually quite dramatic compared to other areas of the planet, explained Terry Wilson, professor of earth sciences at Ohio State. Wilson leads POLENET, an international collaboration that has planted GPS and seismic sensors all over the West Antarctic Ice Sheet.

She and her team weren’t surprised to detect the horizontal motion. After all, they’ve been using GPS to observe vertical motion on the continent since the 1990’s.

They were surprised, she said, to find the bedrock moving towards regions of greatest ice loss.

“From computer models, we knew that the bedrock should rebound as the weight of ice on top of it goes away,” Wilson said. “But the rock should spread out from the site where the ice used to be. Instead, we see movement toward places where there was the most ice loss.”

The seismic sensors explained why. By timing how fast seismic waves pass through the earth under Antarctica, the researchers were able to determine that the mantle regions beneath east and west are very different. West Antarctica contains warmer, softer rock, and East Antarctica has colder, harder rock.

Stephanie Konfal, a research associate with POLENET, pointed out that where the transition is most pronounced, the sideways movement runs perpendicular to the boundary between the two types of mantle.

She likened the mantle interface to a pot of honey.

“If you imagine that you have warm spots and cold spots in the honey, so that some of it is soft and some is hard,” Konfal said, “and if you press down on the surface of the honey with a spoon, the honey will move away from the spoon, but the movement won’t be uniform. The hard spots will push into the soft spots. And when you take the spoon away, the soft honey won’t uniformly flow back up to fill the void, because the hard honey is still pushing on it.”

Or, put another way, ice compressed West Antarctica’s soft mantle. Some ice has melted away, but the soft mantle isn’t filling back in uniformly, because East Antarctica’s harder mantle is pushing it sideways. The crust is just along for the ride.

This finding is significant, Konfal said, because we use these crustal motions to understand ice loss.

“We’re witnessing expected movements being reversed, so we know we really need computer models that can take lateral changes in mantle properties into account.”

Wilson said that such extreme differences in mantle properties are not seen elsewhere on the planet where glacial rebound is occurring.

“We figured Antarctica would be different,” she said. “We just didn’t know how different.”

Ohio State’s POLENET academic partners in the United States are Pennsylvania State University, Washington University, New Mexico Tech, Central Washington University, the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics and the University of Memphis. A host of international partners are part of the effort as well. The project is supported by the UNAVCO and IRIS-PASSCAL geodetic and seismic facilities.