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.”

Fountain of youth underlies Antarctic Mountains

Images of the ice-covered Gamburtsev Mountains revealed water-filled valleys, as seen by the cluster of vertical lines in this image. -  Tim Creyts
Images of the ice-covered Gamburtsev Mountains revealed water-filled valleys, as seen by the cluster of vertical lines in this image. – Tim Creyts

Time ravages mountains, as it does people. Sharp features soften, and bodies grow shorter and rounder. But under the right conditions, some mountains refuse to age. In a new study, scientists explain why the ice-covered Gamburtsev Mountains in the middle of Antarctica looks as young as they do.

The Gamburtsevs were discovered in the 1950s, but remained unexplored until scientists flew ice-penetrating instruments over the mountains 60 years later. As this ancient hidden landscape came into focus, scientists were stunned to see the saw-toothed and towering crags of much younger mountains. Though the Gamburtsevs are contemporaries of the largely worn-down Appalachians, they looked more like the Rockies, which are nearly 200 million years younger.

More surprising still, the scientists discovered a vast network of lakes and rivers at the mountains’ base. Though water usually speeds erosion, here it seems to have kept erosion at bay. The reason, researchers now say, has to do with the thick ice that has entombed the Gamburtsevs since Antarctica went into a deep freeze 35 million years ago.

“The ice sheet acts like an anti-aging cream,” said the study’s lead author, Timothy Creyts, a geophysicist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “It triggers a series of thermodynamic processes that have almost perfectly preserved the Gamburtsevs since ice began spreading across the continent.”

The study, which appears in the latest issue of the journal Geophysical Research Letters, explains how the blanket of ice covering the Gamburtsevs has preserved its rugged ridgelines.

Snow falling at the surface of the ice sheet draws colder temperatures down, closer to protruding peaks in a process called divergent cooling. At the same time, heat radiating from bedrock beneath the ice sheet melts ice in the deep valleys to form rivers and lakes. As rivers course along the base of the ice sheet, high pressures from the overlying ice sheet push water up valleys in reverse. This uphill flow refreezes as it meets colder temperature from above. Thus, ridgelines are cryogenically preserved.

The oldest rocks in the Gamburtsevs formed more than a billion years ago, in the collision of several continents. Though these prototype mountains eroded away, a lingering crustal root became reactivated when the supercontinent Gondwana ripped apart, starting about 200 million years ago. Tectonic forces pushed the land up again to form the modern Gamburtsevs, which range across an area the size of the Alps. Erosion again chewed away at the mountains until earth entered a cooling phase 35 million years ago. Expanding outward from the Gamburtsevs, a growing layer of ice joined several other nucleation points to cover the entire continent in ice.

The researchers say that the mechanism that stalled aging of the Gamburtsevs at higher elevations may explain why some ridgelines in the Torngat Mountains on Canada’s Labrador Peninsula and the Scandinavian Mountains running through Norway, Sweden and Finland appear strikingly untouched. Massive ice sheets covered both landscapes during the last ice age, which peaked about 20,000 years ago, but many high-altitude features bear little trace of this event.

“The authors identify a mechanism whereby larger parts of mountains ranges in glaciated regions–not just Antarctica–could be spared from erosion,” said Stewart Jamieson, a glaciologist at Durham University who was not involved in the study. “This is important because these uplands are nucleation centers for ice sheets. If they were to gradually erode during glacial cycles, they would become less effective as nucleation points during later ice ages.”

Ice sheet behavior, then, may influence climate change in ways that scientists and computer models have yet to appreciate. As study coauthor Fausto Ferraccioli, head of the British Antarctic Survey’s airborne geophysics group, put it: “If these mountains in interior East Antarctica had been more significantly eroded then the ice sheet itself
may have had a different history.”

Other Authors


Hugh Carr and Tom Jordan of the British Antarctic Survey; Robin Bell, Michael Wolovick and Nicholas Frearson of Lamont-Doherty; Kathryn Rose of University of Bristol; Detlef Damaske of Germany’s Federal Institute for Geosciences and Natural Resources; David Braaten of Kansas University; and Carol Finn of the U.S. Geological Survey.

Copies of the paper, “Freezing of ridges and water networks preserves the Gamburtsev Subglacial Mountains for millions of years,” are available from the authors.

Scientist Contact


Tim Creyts

845-365-8368

tcreyts@ldeo.columbia.edu

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.”

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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.

Fracture-controlled erodibility, great rock climbing

Tuolumne Meadows in Yosemite National Park is an iconic American landscape: It is a sub-alpine meadow surrounded by glacially sculpted granitic outcrops in the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Because of its accessibility and aesthetic appeal, it is a focal point for both vacationers (up to 4,200 people per day) and geoscientists. It also has historical significance: The idea for a Yosemite National Park came to John Muir and Robert Underwood Johnson over a campfire there.

As the largest sub-alpine meadow in the Sierra Nevada, Tuolumne Meadows is also a geomorphic anomaly: The presence of broad and open topography is commonly associated with bedrock erodibility. In contrast, the nearby vertical rock walls — including Cathedral Peak, Matthes Crest, and Lembert Dome — suggest bedrock durability. Despite these geomorphic differences, the entire region is underlain by the same lithology, the Cathedral Peak Granodiorite.

In this new study published in the November 2014 issue of GSA Today, authors Richard A. Becker, Basil Tikoff, Paul R. Riley, and Neal R. Iverson present evidence that this anomalous landscape is the result of preferential glacial erosion of highly fractured bedrock. In particular, tabular fracture clusters (TFCs) are common in the Cathedral Peak Granodiorite in the Tuolumne Meadows area. TFCs are dense networks of sub-parallel opening-mode fractures that are clustered into discrete, tabular (book-like) zones.

The authors conclude that Tuolumne Meadows resulted from ice flowing perpendicularly to high TFC concentrations. In contrast, ice flowing parallel to variable TFC concentrations formed the vertical rock walls. Thus, the exceptional rock climbing around Tuolumne Meadows is a direct result of fracture-controlled variations in erodibility — on the 10 meter to 100 meter scale — within a single lithology. This finding supports the contention that landscape evolution is strongly controlled by bedrock fracturing and that tectonic processes that result in fracturing may generally exert a fundamental and underappreciated role in geomorphology.

ARTICLE

Preexisting fractures and the formation of an iconic American landscape: Tuolumne Meadows, Yosemite National Park, USA

Richard A. Becker et al., Dept. of Geoscience, University of Wisconsin, 1215 W. Dayton Street, Madison, Wisconsin 53706, USA, USA, Pages 4–10; doi: 10.1130/GSATG203A.1.

Researchers turn to 3-D technology to examine the formation of cliffband landscapes

This is a scene from the Colorado Plateau region of Utah. -  Dylan Ward
This is a scene from the Colorado Plateau region of Utah. – Dylan Ward

A blend of photos and technology takes a new twist on studying cliff landscapes and how they were formed. Dylan Ward, a University of Cincinnati assistant professor of geology, will present a case study on this unique technology application at The Geological Society of America’s Annual Meeting & Exposition. The meeting takes place Oct. 19-22, in Vancouver.

Ward is using a method called Structure-From-Motion Photogrammetry – computational photo image processing techniques – 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.

To get an idea of these cliff formations, think of one of the nation’s most spectacular tourist attractions, the Grand Canyon.

“The Colorado plateau, for example, has areas with a very simple, sandstone-over-shale layered stratigraphy. We’re examining how the debris and sediment off that sandstone ends up down in the stream channels on the shale, and affects the erosion by those streams,” explains Ward. “The river cuts down through the rock, creating the cliffs. The cliffs walk back by erosion, so there’s this spectacular staircase of stratigraphy that owes its existence and form to that general process.”

Ward’s research takes a new approach to documenting the topography in very high resolution, using a new method of photogrammetry – measurement in 3-D, based on stereo photographs.

“First, we use a digital camera to take photos of the landscape from different angles. Then, we use a sophisticated imaging processing program than can take that set of photos and find the common points between the photographs. From there, we can build a 3-D computer model of that landscape. Months of fieldwork, in comparison, would only produce a fraction of the data that we produce in the computer model,” says Ward.

Ward says that ultimately, examining this piece of the puzzle will give researchers an idea as to how the broader U.S. landscape was formed.

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.”

Early Earth less hellish than previously thought

Calvin Miller is shown at the Kerlingarfjoll volcano in central Iceland. Some geologists have proposed that the early Earth may have resembled regions like this. -  Tamara Carley
Calvin Miller is shown at the Kerlingarfjoll volcano in central Iceland. Some geologists have proposed that the early Earth may have resembled regions like this. – Tamara Carley

Conditions on Earth for the first 500 million years after it formed may have been surprisingly similar to the present day, complete with oceans, continents and active crustal plates.

This alternate view of Earth’s first geologic eon, called the Hadean, has gained substantial new support from the first detailed comparison of zircon crystals that formed more than 4 billion years ago with those formed contemporaneously in Iceland, which has been proposed as a possible geological analog for early Earth.

The study was conducted by a team of geologists directed by Calvin Miller, the William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at Vanderbilt University, and published online this weekend by the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters in a paper titled, “Iceland is not a magmatic analog for the Hadean: Evidence from the zircon record.”

From the early 20th century up through the 1980’s, geologists generally agreed that conditions during the Hadean period were utterly hostile to life. Inability to find rock formations from the period led them to conclude that early Earth was hellishly hot, either entirely molten or subject to such intense asteroid bombardment that any rocks that formed were rapidly remelted. As a result, they pictured the surface of the Earth as covered by a giant “magma ocean.”

This perception began to change about 30 years ago when geologists discovered zircon crystals (a mineral typically associated with granite) with ages exceeding 4 billion years old preserved in younger sandstones. These ancient zircons opened the door for exploration of the Earth’s earliest crust. In addition to the radiometric dating techniques that revealed the ages of these ancient zircons, geologists used other analytical techniques to extract information about the environment in which the crystals formed, including the temperature and whether water was present.

Since then zircon studies have revealed that the Hadean Earth was not the uniformly hellish place previously imagined, but during some periods possessed an established crust cool enough so that surface water could form – possibly on the scale of oceans.

Accepting that the early Earth had a solid crust and liquid water (at least at times), scientists have continued to debate the nature of that crust and the processes that were active at that time: How similar was the Hadean Earth to what we see today?

Two schools of thought have emerged: One argues that Hadean Earth was surprisingly similar to the present day. The other maintains that, although it was less hostile than formerly believed, early Earth was nonetheless a foreign-seeming and formidable place, similar to the hottest, most extreme, geologic environments of today. A popular analog is Iceland, where substantial amounts of crust are forming from basaltic magma that is much hotter than the magmas that built most of Earth’s current continental crust.

“We reasoned that the only concrete evidence for what the Hadean was like came from the only known survivors: zircon crystals – and yet no one had investigated Icelandic zircon to compare their telltale compositions to those that are more than 4 billion years old, or with zircon from other modern environments,” said Miller.

In 2009, Vanderbilt doctoral student Tamara Carley, who has just accepted the position of assistant professor at Layfayette College, began collecting samples from volcanoes and sands derived from erosion of Icelandic volcanoes. She separated thousands of zircon crystals from the samples, which cover the island’s regional diversity and represent its 18 million year history.

Working with Miller and doctoral student Abraham Padilla at Vanderbilt, Joe Wooden at Stanford University, Axel Schmitt and Rita Economos from UCLA, Ilya Bindeman at the University of Oregon and Brennan Jordan at the University of South Dakota, Carley analyzed about 1,000 zircon crystals for their age and elemental and isotopic compositions. She then searched the literature for all comparable analyses of Hadean zircon and for representative analyses of zircon from other modern environments.

“We discovered that Icelandic zircons are quite distinctive from crystals formed in other locations on modern Earth. We also found that they formed in magmas that are remarkably different from those in which the Hadean zircons grew,” said Carley.

Most importantly, their analysis found that Icelandic zircons grew from much hotter magmas than Hadean zircons. Although surface water played an important role in the generation of both Icelandic and Hadean crystals, in the Icelandic case the water was extremely hot when it interacted with the source rocks while the Hadean water-rock interactions were at significantly lower temperatures.

“Our conclusion is counterintuitive,” said Miller. “Hadean zircons grew from magmas rather similar to those formed in modern subduction zones, but apparently even ‘cooler’ and ‘wetter’ than those being produced today.”

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.

New study of largely unstudied mesophotic coral reef geology

This is Platy coral representative of the US Virgin Islands mesophotic habitats. -  Photo by David Weinstein
This is Platy coral representative of the US Virgin Islands mesophotic habitats. – Photo by David Weinstein

A new study on biological erosion of mesophotic tropical coral reefs, which are low energy reef environments between 30-150 meters deep, provides new insights into processes that affect the overall structure of these important ecosystems. The purpose of the study was to better understand how bioerosion rates and distribution of bioeroding organisms, such as fish, mollusks and sponges, differ between mesophotic reefs and their shallow-water counterparts and the implications of those variations on the sustainability of the reef structure.

Due to major advancements in deeper underwater diving technology, a large renewal of interest in mesophotic reefs has pulsed through the scientific community because of their high biodiversity, vast extent, and potential refuge for shallower water reef species at risk from the impacts of climate change.

“Studying how mesophotic reefs function and thrive is especially critical now, when considering results from the new IPCC report reviewed by over 1700 expects said that coral reefs are the most vulnerable marine ecosystems on Earth to the adverse effects of climate change,” said David Weinstein, Rosenstiel School Ph.D. student and lead author of the study. “Developing effective environmental management strategies for these important reef systems requires a basic fundamental understanding of the underlining architecture that supports and creates diverse biological ecosystems.”

Weinstein and his research team used previously identified mesophotic reefs at 30-50 meters deep located in the U.S. Virgin Islands composed of a surprising number of coral growing on top different types of reef structures (patches, linear banks, basins) to better understand the role sedimentary processes have in creating and maintaining so many different structures that are critical for maximizing the biodiversity and health of the ecosystem. Researchers analyzed coral rubble and coral skeleton discs collected after one and two years of exposure to determine the sources and rates of bioerosion at these reefs.

Results of the study found that the architecturally unique structures in the study area experience significantly different bioerosion rates.

“This has very important implications when trying to predict how these reefs will grow over time and where preservation efforts might be most effective,” said Weinstein.

Although erosion of the coral skeleton disks at the very deepest sites was more uniform, the researchers suggest that this is likely because the substrates used in the study were all of uniform composition, unlike the diverse composition of the sites. These results imply that bioerosional processes at these depths still exaggerate differences in reef structure depending on the amount of living and dead coral at each reef, the amount of time that material is exposed on the surface, and different localized current flows experienced.

The study also confirmed important concepts in coral geology research that lacked proof from studies venturing deeper than 35 meters. Coral reef bioerosion in the U.S. Virgin Islands and potentially in most of the Caribbean does generally decreases with depth. This result stems from the finding that parrotfish are now the most significant bioeroding group from shallow reefs down to a mesophotic reef transition zone identified by Weinstein at 30-35 meters in depth. The study also was able to conclude bioeroding sponges are the primary organisms responsible for long-term structural modification of mesophotic reefs beyond the transitional zone.

“Coral reefs are essentially a thin benthos veneer draped upon a biologically produced inorganic three-dimensional foundation that creates habitats for many marine organisms,” said Weinstein. “Since mesophotic reefs grow so much slower than shallower reefs, identifying the sources and rate of erosion on mesophotic reefs is even more important to understand the long-term structural sustainability of these tropical reefs systems.”

However, Weinstein suggests that other processes, such as coral growth rates and cementation, must also be more fully studied before scientists have a complete understanding of mesophotic coral reefs.

The paper, currently available online and scheduled for print in a special coral reef edition of the journal Geomorphology later this summeris one of the first to address mesophotic reef sedimentology.

Ancient ocean currents may have changed pace and intensity of ice ages

About 950,000 years ago, North Atlantic currents and northern hemisphere ice sheets underwent changes. -  NASA
About 950,000 years ago, North Atlantic currents and northern hemisphere ice sheets underwent changes. – NASA

Climate scientists have long tried to explain why ice-age cycles became longer and more intense some 900,000 years ago, switching from 41,000-year cycles to 100,000-year cycles.

In a paper published this week in the journal Science, researchers report that the deep ocean currents that move heat around the globe stalled or may have stopped at that time, possibly due to expanding ice cover in the Northern Hemisphere.

“The research is a breakthrough in understanding a major change in the rhythm of Earth’s climate, and shows that the ocean played a central role,” says Candace Major, program director in the National Science Foundation (NSF)’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research.

The slowing currents increased carbon dioxide (CO2) storage in the oceans, leaving less CO2 in the atmosphere. That kept temperatures cold and kicked the climate system into a new phase of colder, but less frequent, ice ages, the scientists believe.

“The oceans started storing more carbon dioxide for a longer period of time,” says Leopoldo Pena, the paper’s lead author and a paleoceanographer at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory (LDEO). “Our evidence shows that the oceans played a major role in slowing the pace of the ice ages and making them more severe.”

The researchers reconstructed the past strength of Earth’s system of ocean currents by sampling deep-sea sediments off the coast of South Africa, where powerful currents originating in the North Atlantic Ocean pass on their way to Antarctica.

How vigorously those currents moved can be inferred by how much North Atlantic water made it that far, as measured by isotope ratios of the element neodymium bearing the signature of North Atlantic seawater.

Like tape recorders, the shells of ancient plankton incorporate these seawater signals through time, allowing scientists to approximate when currents grew stronger and when weaker.

Over the last 1.2 million years, the conveyor-like currents strengthened during warm periods and lessened during ice ages, as previously thought.

But at about 950,000 years ago, ocean circulation slowed significantly and stayed weak for 100,000 years.

During that period the planet skipped an interglacial–the warm interval between ice ages. When the system recovered, it entered a new phase of longer, 100,000-year ice age cycles.

After this turning point, deep ocean currents remained weak during ice ages, and ice ages themselves became colder.

“Our discovery of such a major breakdown in the ocean circulation system was a big surprise,” said paper co-author Steven Goldstein, a geochemist at LDEO. “It allowed the ice sheets to grow when they should have melted, triggering the first 100,000-year cycle.”

Ice ages come and go at predictable intervals based on the changing amount of sunlight that falls on the planet, due to variations in Earth’s orbit around the sun.

Orbital changes alone, however, are not enough to explain the sudden switch to longer ice age intervals.

According to one earlier hypothesis for the transition, advancing glaciers in North America stripped away soils in Canada, causing thicker, longer-lasting ice to build up on the remaining bedrock.

Building on that idea, the researchers believe that the advancing ice might have triggered the slowdown in deep ocean currents, leading the oceans to vent less carbon dioxide, which suppressed the interglacial that should have followed.

“The ice sheets must have reached a critical state that switched the ocean circulation system into a weaker mode,” said Goldstein.

Neodymium, a key component of cellphones, headphones, computers and wind turbines, also offers a good way of measuring the vigor of ancient ocean currents.

Goldstein and colleagues had used neodymium ratios in deep-sea sediment samples to show that ocean circulation slowed during past ice ages.

They used the same method to show that changes in climate preceded changes in ocean circulation.

A trace element in Earth’s crust, neodymium washes into the oceans through erosion from the continents, where natural radioactive decay leaves a signature unique to the land mass from which it originated.

When Goldstein and Lamont colleague Sidney Hemming pioneered this method in the late 1990s, they rarely worried about surrounding neodymium contaminating their samples.

The rise of consumer electronics has changed that.

“I used to say you could do sample processing for neodymium analysis in a parking lot,” said Goldstein. “Not anymore.”