West Antarctic melt rate has tripled: UC Irvine-NASA

A comprehensive, 21-year analysis of the fastest-melting region of Antarctica has found that the melt rate of glaciers there has tripled during the last decade.

The glaciers in the Amundsen Sea Embayment in West Antarctica are hemorrhaging ice faster than any other part of Antarctica and are the most significant Antarctic contributors to sea level rise. This study is the first to evaluate and reconcile observations from four different measurement techniques to produce an authoritative estimate of the amount and the rate of loss over the last two decades.

“The mass loss of these glaciers is increasing at an amazing rate,” said scientist Isabella Velicogna, jointly of the UC Irvine and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Velicogna is a coauthor of a paper on the results, which has been accepted for Dec. 5 publication in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Lead author Tyler Sutterley, a UCI doctoral candidate, and his team did the analysis to verify that the melting in this part of Antarctica is shifting into high gear. “Previous studies had suggested that this region is starting to change very dramatically since the 1990s, and we wanted to see how all the different techniques compared,” Sutterley said. “The remarkable agreement among the techniques gave us confidence that we are getting this right.”

The researchers reconciled measurements of the mass balance of glaciers flowing into the Amundsen Sea Embayment. Mass balance is a measure of how much ice the glaciers gain and lose over time from accumulating or melting snow, discharges of ice as icebergs, and other causes. Measurements from all four techniques were available from 2003 to 2009. Combined, the four data sets span the years 1992 to 2013.

The glaciers in the embayment lost mass throughout the entire period. The researchers calculated two separate quantities: the total amount of loss, and the changes in the rate of loss.

The total amount of loss averaged 83 gigatons per year (91.5 billion U.S. tons). By comparison, Mt. Everest weighs about 161 gigatons, meaning the Antarctic glaciers lost a Mt.-Everest’s-worth amount of water weight every two years over the last 21 years.

The rate of loss accelerated an average of 6.1 gigatons (6.7 billion U.S. tons) per year since 1992.

From 2003 to 2009, when all four observational techniques overlapped, the melt rate increased an average of 16.3 gigatons per year — almost three times the rate of increase for the full 21-year period. The total amount of loss was close to the average at 84 gigatons.

The four sets of observations include NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, laser altimetry from NASA’s Operation IceBridge airborne campaign and earlier ICESat satellite, radar altimetry from the European Space Agency’s Envisat satellite, and mass budget analyses using radars and the University of Utrecht’s Regional Atmospheric Climate Model.

The scientists noted that glacier and ice sheet behavior worldwide is by far the greatest uncertainty in predicting future sea level. “We have an excellent observing network now. It’s critical that we maintain this network to continue monitoring the changes,” Velicogna said, “because the changes are proceeding very fast.”


About the University of California, Irvine:

Founded in 1965, UCI is the youngest member of the prestigious Association of American Universities. The campus has produced three Nobel laureates and is known for its academic achievement, premier research, innovation and anteater mascot. Led by Chancellor Howard Gillman, UCI has more than 30,000 students and offers 192 degree programs. Located in one of the world’s safest and most economically vibrant communities, it’s Orange County’s second-largest employer, contributing $4.8 billion annually to the local economy.

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First harvest of research based on the final GOCE gravity model

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

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

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

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

Moving on: new science, future missions

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

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

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

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


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

Prehistoric landslide discovery rivals largest known on surface of Earth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mysterious Midcontinent Rift is a geological hybrid

The volcanic rocks of the 1.1 billion-year-old Midcontinent Rift play a prominent role in the natural beauty of Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. -  Seth Stein, Northwestern University
The volcanic rocks of the 1.1 billion-year-old Midcontinent Rift play a prominent role in the natural beauty of Isle Royale National Park in Lake Superior. – Seth Stein, Northwestern University

An international team of geologists has a new explanation for how the Midwest’s biggest geological feature — an ancient and giant 2,000-mile-long underground crack that starts in Lake Superior and runs south to Oklahoma and to Alabama — evolved.

Scientists from Northwestern University, the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC), the University of Gottingen in Germany and the University of Oklahoma report that the 1.1 billion-year-old Midcontinent Rift is a geological hybrid, having formed in three stages: it started as an enormous narrow crack in the Earth’s crust; that space then filled with an unusually large amount of volcanic rock; and, finally, the igneous rocks were forced to the surface, forming the beautiful scenery seen today in the Lake Superior area of the Upper Midwest.

The rift produced some of the Midwest’s most interesting geology and scenery, but there has never been a good explanation for what caused it. Inspired by vacations to Lake Superior, Seth and Carol A. Stein, a husband-and-wife team from Northwestern and UIC, have been determined to learn more in recent years.

Their study, which utilized cutting-edge geologic software and seismic images of rock located below the Earth’s surface in areas of the rift, will be presented Oct. 20 at the Geological Society of America annual meeting in Vancouver.

“The Midcontinent Rift is a very strange beast,” said the study’s lead author, Carol Stein, professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences at UIC. “Rifts are long, narrow cracks splitting the Earth’s crust, with some volcanic rocks in them that rise to fill the cracks. Large igneous provinces, or LIPs, are huge pools of volcanic rocks poured out at the Earth’s surface. The Midcontinent Rift is both of these — like a hybrid animal.”

“Geologists call it a rift because it’s long and narrow,” explained Seth Stein, a co-author of the study, “but it’s got much more volcanic rock inside it than any other rift on a continent, so it’s also a LIP. We’ve been wondering for a long time how this could have happened.” He is the William Deering Professor of Geological Sciences at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.

This question is one of those that EarthScope, a major National Science Foundation program involving geologists from across the U.S., seeks to answer. In this case, the team used images of the Earth at depth from seismic experiments across Lake Superior and EarthScope surveys of other parts of the Midcontinent Rift. The images show the rock layers at depth, much as X-ray photos show the bones in people’s bodies.

In reviewing the images, the researchers found the Midcontinent Rift appeared to evolve in three stages.

“First, the rocks were pulled apart, forming a rift valley,” Carol Stein said. “As the rift was pulling apart, magma flowed into the developing crack. After about 10 million years, the crack stopped growing, but more magma kept pouring out on top. Older magma layers sunk under the weight of new magma, so the hole kept deepening. Eventually the magma ran out, leaving a large igneous province — a 20-mile-thick pile of volcanic rocks. Millions of years later, the rift got squeezed as a new supercontinent reassembled, which made the Earth’s crust under the rift thicker.”

To test this idea, the Steins turned to Jonas Kley, professor of geology at Germany’s Gottingen University, their host during a research year in Germany sponsored by the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation.

Kley used software that allows geologic time to run backwards. “We start with the rocks as they are today,” Kley explained, “and then undo movement on faults and vertical movements. It’s like reconstructing a car crash. When we’re done we have a picture of what happened and when. This lets us test ideas and see if they work.”

Kley’s analysis showed that the three-stage history made sense — the Midcontinent Rift started as a rift and then evolved into a large igneous province. The last stage brought rocks in the Lake Superior area to the surface.

Other parts of the picture fit together nicely, the Steins said. David Hindle, also from Gottingen University, used a computer model to show that the rift’s shape seen in the seismic images results from the crust bending under weight of magma.

Randy Keller, a professor and director of the Oklahoma Geological Survey, found that the weight of the dense magma filling the rift explains the stronger pull of gravity measured above the rift. He points out that these variations in the gravity field are the major evidence used to map the extent of the rift.

“It’s funny,” Seth Stein mused. “Carol and I have been living in Chicago for more than 30 years. We often have gone up to Lake Superior for vacations but didn’t think much about the geology. It’s only in the past few years that we realized there’s a great story there and started working on it. There are many studies going on today, which will give more results in the next few years.”

The Steins now are working with other geologists to help park rangers and teachers tell this story to the public. For example, a good way to think about how rifts work is to observe what happens if you pull both ends of a Mars candy bar: the top chocolate layer breaks, and the inside stretches.

“Sometimes people think that exciting geology only happens in places like California,” Seth Stein said. “We hope results like this will encourage young Midwesterners to study geology and make even further advances.”

New map uncovers thousands of unseen seamounts on ocean floor

This is a gravity model of the North Atlantic; red dots are earthquakes. Quakes are often related to seamounts. -  David Sandwell, SIO
This is a gravity model of the North Atlantic; red dots are earthquakes. Quakes are often related to seamounts. – David Sandwell, SIO

Scientists have created a new map of the world’s seafloor, offering a more vivid picture of the structures that make up the deepest, least-explored parts of the ocean.

The feat was accomplished by accessing two untapped streams of satellite data.

Thousands of previously uncharted mountains rising from the seafloor, called seamounts, have emerged through the map, along with new clues about the formation of the continents.

Combined with existing data and improved remote sensing instruments, the map, described today in the journal Science, gives scientists new tools to investigate ocean spreading centers and little-studied remote ocean basins.

Earthquakes were also mapped. In addition, the researchers discovered that seamounts and earthquakes are often linked. Most seamounts were once active volcanoes, and so are usually found near tectonically active plate boundaries, mid-ocean ridges and subducting zones.

The new map is twice as accurate as the previous version produced nearly 20 years ago, say the researchers, who are affiliated with California’s Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) and other institutions.

“The team has developed and proved a powerful new tool for high-resolution exploration of regional seafloor structure and geophysical processes,” says Don Rice, program director in the National Science Foundation’s Division of Ocean Sciences, which funded the research.

“This capability will allow us to revisit unsolved questions and to pinpoint where to focus future exploratory work.”

Developed using a scientific model that captures gravity measurements of the ocean seafloor, the map extracts data from the European Space Agency’s (ESA) CryoSat-2 satellite.

CryoSat-2 primarily captures polar ice data but also operates continuously over the oceans. Data also came from Jason-1, NASA’s satellite that was redirected to map gravity fields during the last year of its 12-year mission.

“The kinds of things you can see very clearly are the abyssal hills, the most common landform on the planet,” says David Sandwell, lead author of the paper and a geophysicist at SIO.

The paper’s co-authors say that the map provides a window into the tectonics of the deep oceans.

The map also provides a foundation for the upcoming new version of Google’s ocean maps; it will fill large voids between shipboard depth profiles.

Previously unseen features include newly exposed continental connections across South America and Africa and new evidence for seafloor spreading ridges in the Gulf of Mexico. The ridges were active 150 million years ago and are now buried by mile-thick layers of sediment.

“One of the most important uses will be to improve the estimates of seafloor depth in the 80 percent of the oceans that remain uncharted or [where the sea floor] is buried beneath thick sediment,” the authors state.


Co-authors of the paper include R. Dietmar Muller of the University of Sydney, Walter Smith of the NOAA Laboratory for Satellite Altimetry Emmanuel Garcia of SIO and Richard Francis of ESA.

The study also was supported by the U.S. Office of Naval Research, the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency and ConocoPhillips.

The bend in the Appalachian mountain chain is finally explained

A dense, underground block of volcanic rock (shown in red) helped shape the well-known bend in the Appalachian mountain range. -  Graphic by Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester.
A dense, underground block of volcanic rock (shown in red) helped shape the well-known bend in the Appalachian mountain range. – Graphic by Michael Osadciw/University of Rochester.

The 1500 mile Appalachian mountain chain runs along a nearly straight line from Alabama to Newfoundland-except for a curious bend in Pennsylvania and New York State. Researchers from the College of New Jersey and the University of Rochester now know what caused that bend-a dense, underground block of rigid, volcanic rock forced the chain to shift eastward as it was forming millions of years ago.

According to Cindy Ebinger, a professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester, scientists had previously known about the volcanic rock structure under the Appalachians. “What we didn’t understand was the size of the structure or its implications for mountain-building processes,” she said.

The findings have been published in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

When the North American and African continental plates collided more than 300 million years ago, the North American plate began folding and thrusting upwards as it was pushed westward into the dense underground rock structure-in what is now the northeastern United States. The dense rock created a barricade, forcing the Appalachian mountain range to spring up with its characteristic bend.

The research team-which also included Margaret Benoit, an associate professor of physics at the College of New Jersey, and graduate student Melanie Crampton at the College of New Jersey-studied data collected by the Earthscope project, which is funded by the National Science Foundation. Earthscope makes use of 136 GPS receivers and an array of 400 portable seismometers deployed in the northeast United States to measure ground movement.

Benoit and Ebinger also made use of the North American Gravity Database, a compilation of open-source data from the U.S., Canada, and Mexico. The database, started two decades ago, contains measurements of the gravitational pull over the North American terrain. Most people assume that gravity has a constant value, but when gravity is experimentally measured, it changes from place to place due to variations in the density and thickness of Earth’s rock layers. Certain parts of the Earth are denser than others, causing the gravitational pull to be slightly greater in those places.

Data on the changes in gravitational pull and seismic velocity together allowed the researchers to determine the density of the underground structure and conclude that it is volcanic in origin, with dimensions of 450 kilometers by 100 kilometers. This information, along with data from the Earthscope project ultimately helped the researchers to model how the bend was formed.

Ebinger called the research project a “foundation study” that will improve scientists’ understanding of the Earth’s underlying structures. As an example, Ebinger said their findings could provide useful information in the debate over hydraulic fracturing-popularly known is hydrofracking-in New York State.

Hydrofracking is a mining technique used to extract natural gas from deep in the earth. It involves drilling horizontally into shale formations, then injecting the rock with sand, water, and a cocktail of chemicals to free the trapped gas for removal. The region just west of the Appalachian Basin-the Marcellus Shale formation-is rich in natural gas reserves and is being considered for development by drilling companies.

Study provides crucial new information about how the ice ages came about

An international team of scientists has discovered new relationships between deep-sea temperature and ice-volume changes to provide crucial new information about how the ice ages came about.

Researchers from the University of Southampton, the National Oceanography Centre and the Australian National University developed a new method for determining sea-level and deep-sea temperature variability over the past 5.3 million years. It provides new insight into the climatic relationships that caused the development of major ice-age cycles during the past two million years.

The researchers found, for the first time, that the long-term trends in cooling and continental ice-volume cycles over the past 5.3 million years were not the same. In fact, for temperature the major step toward the ice ages that have characterised the past two to three million years was a cooling event at 2.7 million years ago, but for ice-volume the crucial step was the development of the first intense ice age at around 2.15 million years ago. Before these results, these were thought to have occurred together at about 2.5 million years ago.

The results are published in the scientific journal Nature.

Co-author Dr Gavin Foster, from Ocean and Earth Science at the University of Southampton, says: “Our work focused on the discovery of new relationships within the natural Earth system. In that sense, the observed decoupling of temperature and ice-volume changes provides crucial new information for our understanding of how the ice ages developed.

“However, there are wider implications too. For example, a more refined sea-level record over millions of years is commercially interesting because it allows a better understanding of coastal sediment sequences that are relevant to the petroleum industry. Our record is also of interest to climate policy developments, because it opens the door to detailed comparisons between past atmospheric CO2 concentrations, global temperatures, and sea levels, which has enormous value to long-term future climate projections.”

The team used records of oxygen isotope ratios (which provide a record of ancient water temperature) from microscopic plankton fossils recovered from the Mediterranean Sea, spanning the last 5.3 million years. This is a particularly useful region because the oxygen isotopic composition of the seawater is largely determined by the flow of water through the Strait of Gibraltar, which in turn is sensitive to changes in global sea level – in a way like the pinching of a hosepipe.

As continental ice sheets grew during the ice ages, flow through the Strait of Gibraltar was reduced, causing measurable increases in the oxygen isotope O-18 (8 protons and 10 neutrons) relative to O-16 (8 protons and 8 neutrons) in Mediterranean waters, which became preserved in the shells of the ancient plankton. Using long drill cores and uplifted sections of sea-floor sediments, previous work had analysed such microfossil-based oxygen isotope records from carefully dated sequences.

The current study added a numerical model for calculating water exchange through the Strait of Gibraltar as a function of sea-level change, which allowed the microfossil records to be used as a sensitive recorder of global sea-level changes. The new sea-level record was then used in combination with existing deep-sea oxygen isotope records from the open ocean, to work out deep-sea temperature changes.

Lead author, Professor Eelco Rohling of Australian National University, says: “This is the first step for reconstructions from the Mediterranean records. Our previous work has developed and refined this technique for Red Sea records, but in that location it is restricted to the last half a million years because there are no longer drill cores. In the Mediterranean, we could take it down all the way to 5.3 million years ago. There are uncertainties involved, so we included wide-ranging assessments of these, as well as pointers to the most promising avenues for improvement. This work lays the foundation for a concentrated effort toward refining and improving the new sea-level record.”

Noting the importance of the Strait of Gibraltar to the analysis, co-author Dr Mark Tamisiea from the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton adds: “Flow through the Strait will depend not only on the ocean’s volume, but also on how the land in the region moves up and down in response to the changing water levels. We use a global model of changes in the ocean and the ice sheets to estimate the deformation and gravity changes in the region, and how that will affect our estimate of global sea-level change.”

Extrusive volcanism formed the Hawaiian Islands

This is a 3-D perspective view of the topography of the Hawaiian Islands (gray shaded) and seafloor relief viewed from just south of the Hawaii's Big Island. The colors show residual gravity anomaly, measured on land and along ship tracks: red-cyan representing an excess pull of gravity, blue representing a small deficit in the pull of gravity. -  Ashton Flinders, UHM SOEST.
This is a 3-D perspective view of the topography of the Hawaiian Islands (gray shaded) and seafloor relief viewed from just south of the Hawaii’s Big Island. The colors show residual gravity anomaly, measured on land and along ship tracks: red-cyan representing an excess pull of gravity, blue representing a small deficit in the pull of gravity. – Ashton Flinders, UHM SOEST.

A recent study by researchers at the University of Hawaii – Manoa (UHM) School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology (SOEST) and the University of Rhode Island (URI) changes the understanding of how the Hawaiian Islands formed. Scientists have determined that it is the eruptions of lava on the surface, extrusion, which grow Hawaiian volcanoes, rather than internal emplacement of magma, as was previously thought.

Before this work, most scientists thought that Hawaiian volcanoes grew primarily internally – by magma intruding into rock and solidifying before it reaches the surface. While this type of growth does occur, along Kilauea’s East Rift Zone (ERZ), for example, it does not appear to be representative of the overall history of how the Hawaiian Islands formed. Previous estimates of the internal-to-extrusive ratios (internally emplaced magma versus extrusive lava flow) were based on observations over a very short time frame, in the geologic sense.

Ashton Flinders (M.S. from UHM), lead author and graduate student at URI, and colleagues compiled historical land-based gravity surveys with more recent surveys on the Big Island of Hawaii (in partnership with Jim Kauhikaua of the U.S. Geological Survey – Hawaii Volcano Observatory) and Kauai, along with marine surveys from the National Geophysical Data Center and from the UH R/V Kilo Moana. These types of data sets allow scientists to infer processes that have taken place over longer time periods.

“The discrepancy we see between our estimate and these past estimates emphasizes that the short term processes we currently see in Hawaii (which tend to be more intrusive) do not represent the predominant character of their volcanic activity,” said Flinder.

“This could imply that over the long-term, Kilauea’s ERZ will see less seismic activity and more eruptive activity that previously thought. The 3-decade-old eruption along Kilauea’s ERZ could last for many, many more decades to come,” said Dr. Garrett Ito, Professor of Geology and Geophysics at UHM and co-author.

“I think one of the more interesting possible implications is how the intrusive-to-extrusive ratio impacts the stability of the volcano’s flank. Collapses occur over a range of scales from as large as the whole flank of a volcano, to bench collapses on the south coast of Big Island, to small rock falls. ” said Flinders. Intrusive magma is more dense and structurally stronger than lava flows. “If the bulk of the islands are made from these weak extrusive flows then this would account for some of the collapses that have been documented, but this is mainly just speculation as of now.”

The authors hope this new density model can be used as a starting point for further crustal studies in the Hawaiian Islands.

Gravity variations much bigger than previously thought

This image is an extract of the new high-resolution gravity map over Australia and South-East Asia. The map tells us about the anomalies in gravity, with red indicating strongly positive anomalies and blue negative anomalies. -  Christian Hirt
This image is an extract of the new high-resolution gravity map over Australia and South-East Asia. The map tells us about the anomalies in gravity, with red indicating strongly positive anomalies and blue negative anomalies. – Christian Hirt

A joint Australian-German research team led by Curtin University’s Dr Christian Hirt has created the highest-resolution maps of Earth’s gravity field to date — showing gravitational variations up to 40 percent larger than previously assumed.

Using detailed topographic information obtained from the US Space Shuttle, a specialist team including Associate Professor Michael Kuhn, Dr Sten Claessens and Moritz Rexer from Curtin’s Western Australian Centre for Geodesy and Professor Roland Pail and Thomas Fecher from Technical University Munich improved the resolution of previous global gravity field maps by a factor of 40.

“This is a world-first effort to portray the gravity field for all countries of our planet with unseen detail”, Dr Hirt said.

“Our research team calculated free-fall gravity at three billion points — that’s one every 200 metres — to create these highest-resolution gravity maps. They show the subtle changes in gravity over most land areas of Earth.”

The new gravity maps revealed the variations of free-fall gravity over Earth were much bigger than previously thought.

The Earth’s gravitational pull is smallest on the top of the Huascaran mountain in the South American Andes, and largest near the North Pole.

“Only a few years ago, this research would not have been possible,” Dr Hirt said.

“The creation of the maps would have required about 80 years of office PC computation time but advanced supercomputing provided by the Western Australian iVEC facility helped us to complete the maps within a few months.”

High-resolution gravity maps are required in civil engineering, for instance, for building of canals, bridges and tunnels. The mining industry could also benefit.

“The maps can be used by surveyors and other spatial science professionals to precisely measure topographic heights with satellite systems such as the Global Positioning System (GPS),” Dr Hirt said.

The findings of the research team from Curtin and Technical University Munich have recently appeared in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Continuous satellite monitoring of ice sheets needed to better predict sea-level rise

The findings, published in Nature Geoscience, underscore the need for continuous satellite monitoring of the ice sheets to better identify and predict melting and the corresponding sea-level rise.

The ice sheets covering Antarctica and Greenland contain about 99.5 per cent of the Earth’s glacier ice which would raise global sea level by some 63m if it were to melt completely. The ice sheets are the largest potential source of future sea level rise – and they also possess the largest uncertainty over their future behaviour. They present some unique challenges for predicting their future response using numerical modelling and, as a consequence, alternative approaches have been explored. One common approach is to extrapolate observed changes to estimate their contribution to sea level in the future.

Since 2002, the satellites of the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) detect tiny variations in Earth’s gravity field resulting from changes in mass distribution, including movement of ice into the oceans. Using these changes in gravity, the state of the ice sheets can be monitored at monthly intervals.

Dr Bert Wouters, currently a visiting researcher at the University of Colorado, said: “In the course of the mission, it has become apparent that ice sheets are losing substantial amounts of ice – about 300 billion tonnes each year – and that the rate at which these losses occurs is increasing. Compared to the first few years of the GRACE mission, the ice sheets’ contribution to sea level rise has almost doubled in recent years.”

Yet, there is no consensus among scientists about the cause of this recent increase in ice sheet mass loss observed by satellites. Beside anthropogenic warming, ice sheets are affected by many natural processes, such as multi-year fluctuations in the atmosphere (for example, shifting pressure systems in the North Atlantic, or El Niño and La Niña events) and slow changes in ocean currents.

“So, if observations span only a few years, such ‘ice sheet weather’ may show up as an apparent speed-up of ice loss which would cancel out once more observations become available,” Dr Wouters said.

The team of researchers compared nine years of satellite data from the GRACE mission with reconstructions of about 50 years of mass changes to the ice sheets. They found that the ability to accurately detect an accelerating trend in mass loss depends on the length of the record.

At the moment, the ice loss detected by the GRACE satellites is larger than what we would expect to see just from natural fluctuations, but the speed-up of ice loss over the last years is not.

The study suggests that although there may be almost enough satellite data to detect a speed-up in mass loss of the Antarctic ice sheet with a reasonable level of confidence, another ten years of satellite observations is needed to do so for Greenland. As a result, extrapolation of the current contribution to sea-level rise of the ice sheets to 2100 may be too high or low by as much as 35 cm. The study, therefore, urges caution in extrapolating current measurements to predict future sea-level rise.