Cracking the ice code

UWM geosciences professor John Isbell (left) and postdoctoral researcher Erik Gulbranson, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, look over some of the many samples they have brought back from Antarctica. The two are part of an international team of scientists investigating the last extreme climate shift on Earth, which occurred in the late Paleozoic Era. -  Troye Fox
UWM geosciences professor John Isbell (left) and postdoctoral researcher Erik Gulbranson, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, look over some of the many samples they have brought back from Antarctica. The two are part of an international team of scientists investigating the last extreme climate shift on Earth, which occurred in the late Paleozoic Era. – Troye Fox

What happened the last time a vegetated Earth shifted from an extremely cold climate to desert-like conditions? And what does it tell us about climate change today?

John Isbell is on a quest to coax that information from the geology of the southernmost portions of the Earth. It won’t be easy, because the last transition from “icehouse to greenhouse” occurred between 335 and 290 million years ago.

An expert in glaciation from the late Paleozoic Era, Isbell is challenging many assumptions about the way drastic climate change naturally unfolds. The research helps form the all-important baseline needed to predict what the added effects of human activity will bring.

Starting from ‘deep freeze’

In the late Paleozoic, the modern continents were fused together into two huge land masses, with what is now the Southern Hemisphere, including Antarctica, called Gondwana.

During the span of more than 60 million years, Gondwana shifted from a state of deep freeze into one so hot and dry it supported the appearance of reptiles. The change, however, didn’t happen uniformly, Isbell says.

In fact, his research has shaken the common belief that Gondwana was covered by one massive sheet of ice which gradually and steadily melted away as conditions warmed.

Isbell has found that at least 22 individual ice sheets were located in various places over the region. And the state of glaciation during the long warming period was marked by dramatic swings in temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.

“There appears to be a direct association between low CO2 levels and glaciation,” he says. “A lot of the changes in greenhouse gases and in a shrinking ice volume then are similar to what we’re seeing today.”

When the ice finally started disappearing, he says, it did so in the polar regions first and lingered in other parts of Gondwana with higher elevations. He attributes that to different conditions across Gondwana, such as mountain-building events, which would have preserved glaciers longer.

All about the carbon

To get an accurate picture of the range of conditions in the late Paleozoic, Isbell has traveled to Antarctica 16 times and has joined colleagues from around the world as part of an interdisciplinary team funded by the National Science Foundation. They have regularly gone to places where no one has ever walked on the rocks before.

One of his colleagues is paleoecologist Erik Gulbranson, who studies plant communities from the tail end of the Paleozoic and how they evolved in concert with the climatic changes. The information contained in fossil soil and plants, he says, can reveal a lot about carbon cycling, which is so central for applying the work to climate change today.

Documenting the particulars of how the carbon cycle behaved so long ago will allow them to answer questions like, ‘What was the main force behind glaciation during the late Paleozoic? Was it mountain-building or climate change?’

Another characteristic of the late Paleozoic shift is that once the climate warmed significantly and atmospheric CO2 levels soared, the Earth’s climate remained hot and dry for another 200 million years.

“These natural cycles are very long, and that’s an important difference with what we’re seeing with the contemporary global climate change,” says Gulbranson. “Today, we’re seeing change in greenhouse gas concentrations of CO2 on the order of centuries and decades.”

Ancient trees and soil

In order to explain today’s accelerated warming, Gulbranson’s research illustrates that glaciers alone don’t tell the whole story.

Many environmental factors leave an imprint on the carbon contained in tree trunks from this period. One of the things Gulbranson hypothesizes from his research in Antarctica is that an increase in deciduous trees occurred in higher latitudes during the late Paleozoic, driven by higher temperatures.

What he doesn’t yet know is what the net effect was on the carbon cycle.

While trees soak in CO2 and give off oxygen, there are other environmental processes to consider, says Gulbranson. For example, CO2 emissions also come from soil as microbes speed up their consumption of organic matter with rising temperatures.

“The high latitudes today contain the largest amount of carbon locked up as organic material and permafrost soils on Earth today,” he says. “It actually exceeds the amount of carbon you can measure in the rain forests. So what happens to that stockpile of carbon when you warm it and grow a forest over it is completely unknown.”

Another unknown is whether the Northern Hemisphere during this time was also glaciated and warming. The pair are about to find out. With UWM backing, they will do field work in northeastern Russia this summer to study glacial deposits from the late Paleozoic.

The two scientists’ work is complementary. Dating the rock is essential to pinpointing the rate of change in the carbon cycle, which would be the warning signal we could use today to indicate that nature is becoming dangerously unbalanced.

“If we figure out what happened with the glaciers,” says Isbell, “and add it to what we know about other conditions – we will be able to unlock the answers to climate change.”

Cracking the ice code

UWM geosciences professor John Isbell (left) and postdoctoral researcher Erik Gulbranson, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, look over some of the many samples they have brought back from Antarctica. The two are part of an international team of scientists investigating the last extreme climate shift on Earth, which occurred in the late Paleozoic Era. -  Troye Fox
UWM geosciences professor John Isbell (left) and postdoctoral researcher Erik Gulbranson, University of Wisconsin, Milwaukee, look over some of the many samples they have brought back from Antarctica. The two are part of an international team of scientists investigating the last extreme climate shift on Earth, which occurred in the late Paleozoic Era. – Troye Fox

What happened the last time a vegetated Earth shifted from an extremely cold climate to desert-like conditions? And what does it tell us about climate change today?

John Isbell is on a quest to coax that information from the geology of the southernmost portions of the Earth. It won’t be easy, because the last transition from “icehouse to greenhouse” occurred between 335 and 290 million years ago.

An expert in glaciation from the late Paleozoic Era, Isbell is challenging many assumptions about the way drastic climate change naturally unfolds. The research helps form the all-important baseline needed to predict what the added effects of human activity will bring.

Starting from ‘deep freeze’

In the late Paleozoic, the modern continents were fused together into two huge land masses, with what is now the Southern Hemisphere, including Antarctica, called Gondwana.

During the span of more than 60 million years, Gondwana shifted from a state of deep freeze into one so hot and dry it supported the appearance of reptiles. The change, however, didn’t happen uniformly, Isbell says.

In fact, his research has shaken the common belief that Gondwana was covered by one massive sheet of ice which gradually and steadily melted away as conditions warmed.

Isbell has found that at least 22 individual ice sheets were located in various places over the region. And the state of glaciation during the long warming period was marked by dramatic swings in temperature and atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) levels.

“There appears to be a direct association between low CO2 levels and glaciation,” he says. “A lot of the changes in greenhouse gases and in a shrinking ice volume then are similar to what we’re seeing today.”

When the ice finally started disappearing, he says, it did so in the polar regions first and lingered in other parts of Gondwana with higher elevations. He attributes that to different conditions across Gondwana, such as mountain-building events, which would have preserved glaciers longer.

All about the carbon

To get an accurate picture of the range of conditions in the late Paleozoic, Isbell has traveled to Antarctica 16 times and has joined colleagues from around the world as part of an interdisciplinary team funded by the National Science Foundation. They have regularly gone to places where no one has ever walked on the rocks before.

One of his colleagues is paleoecologist Erik Gulbranson, who studies plant communities from the tail end of the Paleozoic and how they evolved in concert with the climatic changes. The information contained in fossil soil and plants, he says, can reveal a lot about carbon cycling, which is so central for applying the work to climate change today.

Documenting the particulars of how the carbon cycle behaved so long ago will allow them to answer questions like, ‘What was the main force behind glaciation during the late Paleozoic? Was it mountain-building or climate change?’

Another characteristic of the late Paleozoic shift is that once the climate warmed significantly and atmospheric CO2 levels soared, the Earth’s climate remained hot and dry for another 200 million years.

“These natural cycles are very long, and that’s an important difference with what we’re seeing with the contemporary global climate change,” says Gulbranson. “Today, we’re seeing change in greenhouse gas concentrations of CO2 on the order of centuries and decades.”

Ancient trees and soil

In order to explain today’s accelerated warming, Gulbranson’s research illustrates that glaciers alone don’t tell the whole story.

Many environmental factors leave an imprint on the carbon contained in tree trunks from this period. One of the things Gulbranson hypothesizes from his research in Antarctica is that an increase in deciduous trees occurred in higher latitudes during the late Paleozoic, driven by higher temperatures.

What he doesn’t yet know is what the net effect was on the carbon cycle.

While trees soak in CO2 and give off oxygen, there are other environmental processes to consider, says Gulbranson. For example, CO2 emissions also come from soil as microbes speed up their consumption of organic matter with rising temperatures.

“The high latitudes today contain the largest amount of carbon locked up as organic material and permafrost soils on Earth today,” he says. “It actually exceeds the amount of carbon you can measure in the rain forests. So what happens to that stockpile of carbon when you warm it and grow a forest over it is completely unknown.”

Another unknown is whether the Northern Hemisphere during this time was also glaciated and warming. The pair are about to find out. With UWM backing, they will do field work in northeastern Russia this summer to study glacial deposits from the late Paleozoic.

The two scientists’ work is complementary. Dating the rock is essential to pinpointing the rate of change in the carbon cycle, which would be the warning signal we could use today to indicate that nature is becoming dangerously unbalanced.

“If we figure out what happened with the glaciers,” says Isbell, “and add it to what we know about other conditions – we will be able to unlock the answers to climate change.”

Earth’s iron core is surprisingly weak, Stanford researchers say

The massive ball of iron sitting at the center of Earth is not quite as “rock-solid” as has been thought, say two Stanford mineral physicists. By conducting experiments that simulate the immense pressures deep in the planet’s interior, the researchers determined that iron in Earth’s inner core is only about 40 percent as strong as previous studies estimated.

This is the first time scientists have been able to experimentally measure the effect of such intense pressure – as high as 3 million times the pressure Earth’s atmosphere exerts at sea level – in a laboratory. A paper presenting the results of their study is available online in Nature Geoscience.

“The strength of iron under these extreme pressures is startlingly weak,” said Arianna Gleason, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, and lead author of the paper. Wendy Mao, an assistant professor in the department, is the co-author.

“This strength measurement can help us understand how the core deforms over long time scales, which influences how we think about Earth’s evolution and planetary evolution in general,” Gleason said.

Until now, almost all of what is known about Earth’s inner core came from studies tracking seismic waves as they travel from the surface of the planet through the interior. Those studies have shown that the travel time through the inner core isn’t the same in every direction, indicating that the inner core itself is not uniform. Over time and subjected to great pressure, the core has developed a sort of fabric as grains of iron elongate and align lengthwise in parallel formations.

The ease and speed with which iron grains in the inner core can deform and align would have influenced the evolution of the early Earth and development of the geomagnetic field. The field is generated by the circulation of liquid iron in the outer core around the solid inner core and shields Earth from the full intensity of solar radiation. Without the geomagnetic field, life – at least as we know it – would not be possible on Earth.

“The development of the inner core would certainly have some effect on the geomagnetic field, but just what effect and the magnitude of the effect, we can’t say,” said Mao. “That is very speculative.”

Gleason and Mao conducted their experiments using a diamond anvil cell – a device that can exert immense pressure on tiny samples clenched between two diamonds. They subjected minute amounts of pure iron to pressures between 200 and 300 gigapascals (equivalent to the pressure of 2 million to 3 million Earth atmospheres). Previous experimental studies were conducted in the range of only 10 gigapascals.

“We really pushed the limit here in terms of experimental conditions,” Gleason said. “Pioneering advancements in pressure-generation techniques and improvements in detector sensitivity, for example, used at large X-ray synchrotron facilities, such as Argonne National Lab, have allowed us to make these new measurements.”

In addition to intense pressures, the inner core also has extreme temperatures. The boundary between the inner and outer core has temperatures comparable to the surface of the sun. Simultaneously simulating both the pressure and temperature at the inner core isn’t yet possible in the laboratory, though Gleason and Mao are working on that for future studies. (For this study, Gleason mathematically extrapolated from their pressure data to factor in the effect of temperature.)

Gleason and Mao expect their findings will help other researchers set more realistic variables for conducting their own experiments.

“People modeling the inner core haven’t had many experimental constraints, because it’s so difficult to make measurements under those conditions,” Mao said. “There really weren’t constraints on how strong the core was, so this is really a fundamental new constraint.”

Earth’s iron core is surprisingly weak, Stanford researchers say

The massive ball of iron sitting at the center of Earth is not quite as “rock-solid” as has been thought, say two Stanford mineral physicists. By conducting experiments that simulate the immense pressures deep in the planet’s interior, the researchers determined that iron in Earth’s inner core is only about 40 percent as strong as previous studies estimated.

This is the first time scientists have been able to experimentally measure the effect of such intense pressure – as high as 3 million times the pressure Earth’s atmosphere exerts at sea level – in a laboratory. A paper presenting the results of their study is available online in Nature Geoscience.

“The strength of iron under these extreme pressures is startlingly weak,” said Arianna Gleason, a postdoctoral researcher in the department of Geological and Environmental Sciences, and lead author of the paper. Wendy Mao, an assistant professor in the department, is the co-author.

“This strength measurement can help us understand how the core deforms over long time scales, which influences how we think about Earth’s evolution and planetary evolution in general,” Gleason said.

Until now, almost all of what is known about Earth’s inner core came from studies tracking seismic waves as they travel from the surface of the planet through the interior. Those studies have shown that the travel time through the inner core isn’t the same in every direction, indicating that the inner core itself is not uniform. Over time and subjected to great pressure, the core has developed a sort of fabric as grains of iron elongate and align lengthwise in parallel formations.

The ease and speed with which iron grains in the inner core can deform and align would have influenced the evolution of the early Earth and development of the geomagnetic field. The field is generated by the circulation of liquid iron in the outer core around the solid inner core and shields Earth from the full intensity of solar radiation. Without the geomagnetic field, life – at least as we know it – would not be possible on Earth.

“The development of the inner core would certainly have some effect on the geomagnetic field, but just what effect and the magnitude of the effect, we can’t say,” said Mao. “That is very speculative.”

Gleason and Mao conducted their experiments using a diamond anvil cell – a device that can exert immense pressure on tiny samples clenched between two diamonds. They subjected minute amounts of pure iron to pressures between 200 and 300 gigapascals (equivalent to the pressure of 2 million to 3 million Earth atmospheres). Previous experimental studies were conducted in the range of only 10 gigapascals.

“We really pushed the limit here in terms of experimental conditions,” Gleason said. “Pioneering advancements in pressure-generation techniques and improvements in detector sensitivity, for example, used at large X-ray synchrotron facilities, such as Argonne National Lab, have allowed us to make these new measurements.”

In addition to intense pressures, the inner core also has extreme temperatures. The boundary between the inner and outer core has temperatures comparable to the surface of the sun. Simultaneously simulating both the pressure and temperature at the inner core isn’t yet possible in the laboratory, though Gleason and Mao are working on that for future studies. (For this study, Gleason mathematically extrapolated from their pressure data to factor in the effect of temperature.)

Gleason and Mao expect their findings will help other researchers set more realistic variables for conducting their own experiments.

“People modeling the inner core haven’t had many experimental constraints, because it’s so difficult to make measurements under those conditions,” Mao said. “There really weren’t constraints on how strong the core was, so this is really a fundamental new constraint.”

Ancient trash heaps gave rise to Everglades tree islands

Garbage mounds left by prehistoric humans might have driven the formation of many of the Florida Everglades’ tree islands, distinctive havens of exceptional ecological richness in the sprawling marsh that are today threatened by human development.

Tree islands are patches of relatively high and dry ground that dot the marshes of the Everglades. Typically a meter (3.3 feet) or so high, many of them are elevated enough to allow trees to grow. They provide a nesting site for alligators and a refuge for birds, panthers, and other wildlife.

Scientists have thought for many years that the so-called fixed tree islands (a larger type of tree island frequently found in the Everglades’ main channel, Shark River Slough) developed on protrusions from the rocky layer of a mineral called carbonate that sits beneath the marsh. Now, new research indicates that the real trigger for island development might have been middens, or trash piles left behind from human settlements that date to about 5,000 years ago.

These middens, a mixture of bones, food discards, charcoal, and human artifacts (such as clay pots and shell tools), would have provided an elevated area, drier than the surrounding marsh, allowing trees and other vegetation to grow. Bones also leaked phosphorus, a nutrient for plants that is otherwise scarce in the Everglades.

“This goes to show that human disturbance in the environment doesn’t always have a negative consequence,” says Gail Chmura, a paleoecologist at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, and one of the authors of the study.

Chmura will be presenting her research tomorrow, Tuesday 22 March, at the American Geophysical Union’s Chapman Conference on Climates, Past Landscapes, and Civilizations. About 95 scientists have converged on Santa Fe this week to discuss the latest research findings from archeology, paleoclimatology, paleoecology, and other fields that reveal how changes in regional and global climate have impacted the development and fates of societies.

In a previous scientific investigation of tree islands, Margo Schwadron, an archeologist with the National Park Service, cut through the elevated bedrock at the base of two islands and discovered that it was actually a so-called “perched carbonate layer,” because there was more soil and a midden below. Later, a team including Chmura’s graduate student Maria-Theresia Graf performed additional excavations in South Florida and found more of the perched carbonate layers.

Chemical analysis of samples of these curious perched layers revealed that they are made up partially of carbonates that had dissolved from the bedrock below, Chmura says. The layer also contains phosphorus from dissolved bones, she adds. Her team concluded that trees are key to the formation of this layer: During South Florida’s dry season, their roots draw in large quantities of ground water but allow the phosphates and carbonates dissolved in it to seep out and coalesce into the stone-like layer.

The perched carbonate plays a key role in letting tree islands rebound after fires: because it does not burn, it protects the underlying soil, and it maintains the islands’ elevation, allowing vegetation to regrow after the fire. Humans are now threatening the existence of tree islands, by cutting down trees (whose roots keep the perched layer in place) and artificially maintaining high water levels year-round in some water control systems, which could cause the layer to dissolve.

Chmura’s team now wants to explore exactly when trees started growing on the tree islands.

Glacial melting may release pollutants in the environment

Pollutants from melting glaciers may help explain an increase in persistent organic pollutants in certain lakes since the 1990s, despite decreased used of pesticides. -  Wikimedia Commons
Pollutants from melting glaciers may help explain an increase in persistent organic pollutants in certain lakes since the 1990s, despite decreased used of pesticides. – Wikimedia Commons

Those pristine-looking Alpine glaciers now melting as global warming sets in may explain the mysterious increase in persistent organic pollutants in sediment from certain lakes since the 1990s, despite decreased use of those compounds in pesticides, electric equipment, paints and other products. That’s the conclusion of a new study, scheduled for the Nov. 1 issue of ACS’ Environmental Science & Technology, a semi-monthly journal.

In the study, Christian Bogdal and colleagues focused on organic pollutants in sediment from a model body of water — glacier-fed Lake Oberaar in the Bernese Alps, Switzerland — testing for the persistent organic pollutants, including dioxins, PCBs, organochlorine pesticides and synthetic musk fragrances. They found that while contamination decreased to low levels in the 1980s and 1990s due to tougher regulations and improvements in products, since the late 1990s flow of all of these pollutants into the lake has increased sharply. Currently, the flow of organochlorines into the lake is similar to or even higher than in the 1960s and 1970s, the report states.

The study attributed the most recent spike in the flow of pollutants into Lake Oberaar to the accelerated release of organic chemicals from melting Alpine glaciers, where contaminants were deposited earlier and preserved over decades. “Considering ongoing global warming and accelerated massive glacial melting predicted for the future, our study indicates the potential for environmental impacts due to pollutants delivered into pristine mountainous areas,” Bogdal said.