Himalaya tectonic dam with a discharge

The Himalaya features some of the most impressive gorges on Earth that have been formed by rivers. The geologic history of the famous Tsangpo Gorge, in the eastern Himalaya, now needs to be rewritten.

A team of German, Chinese, and American geoscientists have namely discovered a canyon, filled with more than 500 m of sediments beneath the bed of the present-day Yarlung Tsangpo River upstream from the gorge. Using drill cores, the scientists were able to reconstruct the former valley floor of this river, which allowed them to reconstruct the geological history of the Tsangpo Gorge (Science, 21.11.2014). They discovered that the gorge obtained its steep form in response to rapid tectonic uplift in the Himalaya, two to three million years ago. “Because of its high gradient, the river incises its bed very rapidly”, explains Dirk Scherler from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences. “The rocks here are eroded at annual rates of up to one centimeter per year which is matched by tectonic uplift of the same rate.” The collision of India with the Eurasian continent has created a tectonic dam here.

This barrier caused a lower flow velocity of the Yarlung Tsangpoupstream. Previously, the river had deeply incised into the Tibetan Plateau. Due to the reduced flow rate the sediments which the Yarlung Tsangpo River and its tributaries eroded from the highlands were deposited in the river bed along hundreds of kilometers.

The scientists estimated that these deposits are up to 1000 m thick. “Five drillings have been conducted over a distance of 300 km upstream of the gorge”, says Dirk Scherler. “One of the drillings encountered bedrock after 540 meters of sediments. From the drill cores, we were able to infer the reduction in stream flow velocity and date the initiation of sedimentation using cosmogenic nuclides. These are rare isotopes that are produced by cosmic rays near the Earth’s surface. Three Million years ago, the river was still incising into Himalayan bedrock.” But today the once huge canyon is buried by sediments.

The Yarlung Tsangpo is the largest high mountain river on Earth. It flows along a distance of 1700 km across the Tibetan Plateau, at an elevation of around 4000 meters and follows the boundary between India and Eurasia. In the eastern Himalaya, the river leaves the high plateau and breaks through the world famous, horseshoe-shaped Tsangpo Gorge for the plains of India.

The new findings show that rapid incision of the Yarlung Tsangpo and the development of the Tsangpo Gorge occurred in response to tectonic uplift, and not, as previously thought, the other way round. In addition, these observations refute existing hypotheses that relate the origin of the Tsangpo Gorge to river capture of the Yarlung Tsangpo by the Brahmaputra River.

Snail shells show high-rise plateau is much lower than it used to be

This is the Zhada Basin on the southwest Tibetan Plateau, with the Himalayas to the south. -  Joel Saylor
This is the Zhada Basin on the southwest Tibetan Plateau, with the Himalayas to the south. – Joel Saylor

The Tibetan Plateau in south-central Asia, because of its size, elevation and impact on climate, is one of the world’s greatest geological oddities.

At about 960,000 square miles it covers slightly more land area than Alaska, Texas and California combined, and its elevation is on the same scale as Mount Rainier in the Cascade Range of Washington state. Because it rises so high into the atmosphere, it helps bring monsoons over India and other nations to the south while the plateau itself remains generally arid.

For decades, geologists have debated when and how the plateau reached such lofty heights, some 14,000 feet above sea level, about half the elevation of the highest Himalayan peaks just south of the plateau.

But new research led by a University of Washington scientist appears to confirm an earlier improbable finding – at least one large area in southwest Tibet, the plateau’s Zhada Basin, actually lost 3,000 to 5,000 feet of elevation sometime in the Pliocene epoch.

“This basin is really high right now but we think it was a kilometer or more higher just 3 million to 4 million years ago,” said Katharine Huntington, a UW associate professor of Earth and space sciences and the lead author of a paper describing the research.

Co-authors are Joel Saylor of the University of Houston and Jay Quade and Adam Hudson, both of the University of Arizona. The paper was published online in August and will appear in a future print edition of the Geological Society of America Bulletin.

The Zhada Basin has rugged terrain, with exposed deposits of ancient lake and river sediments that make fossil shells of gastropods such as snails easily accessible, and determining their age is relatively straightforward. The researchers studied shells dating from millions of years ago and from a variety of aquatic environments. They also collected modern shell and water samples from a variety of environments for comparison.

The work confirms results of a previous study involving Saylor and Quade that examined the ratio of heavy isotope oxygen-18 to light isotope oxygen-16 in ancient snail shells from the Zhada Basin. They found the ratios were very low, which suggested the basin had a higher elevation in the past.

Oxygen-18 levels decrease in precipitation at higher elevations in comparison with oxygen-16, so shells formed in lakes and rivers that collect precipitation at higher elevations should have a lower heavy-to-light oxygen ratio. However, those lower ratios depend on a number of other factors, including temperature, evaporation and precipitation source, which made it difficult to say with certainty whether the low ratios found in the ancient snail shells meant a loss of elevation in the Zhada Basin.

So the scientists also employed a technique called clumped isotope thermometry, which Huntington has used and worked to refine for several years, to determine the temperature of shell growth and get an independent estimate of elevation change in the basin.

Bonding, or “clumping” together, of heavy carbon-13 and oxygen-18 isotopes in the carbonate of snail shells happens more readily at colder temperatures, and is measured using a tool called a mass spectrometer that provides data on the temperature of the lake or river water in which the snails lived.

The scientists found markedly greater “clumping,” as well as lower ratios of oxygen-18 to oxygen-16 in the ancient shells, indicating the shells formed at temperatures as much as 11 degrees Celsius (20 F) colder than average temperatures today, the equivalent of as much as 5,000 feet of elevation loss.

Just why the elevation decline happened is open to speculation. One possibility is that as faults in the region spread, the Zhada Basin lowered, Huntington said. It is unknown yet whether other parts of the southern plateau also lowered at the same time, but if elevation loss was widespread it could be because of broader fault spreading. It also is possible the crust thickened and forced large rock formations even deeper into the Earth, where they heated until they reached a consistency at which they could ooze out from beneath the crust, like toothpaste squeezed from the tube.

She noted that climate records from deep-sea fossils indicate Earth was significantly warmer when the cold Zhada Basin snail shells were formed.

“Our findings are a conservative estimate,” Huntington said. “No one can say this result is due to a colder climate, because if anything it should have been warmer.”

Trinity geologists re-write Earth’s evolutionary history books

The study site landscape is shown with boulders of the paleosol in the foreground. -  Quentin Crowley
The study site landscape is shown with boulders of the paleosol in the foreground. – Quentin Crowley

Geologists from Trinity College Dublin have rewritten the evolutionary history books by finding that oxygen-producing life forms were present on Earth some 3 billion years ago – a full 60 million years earlier than previously thought. These life forms were responsible for adding oxygen (O2) to our atmosphere, which laid the foundations for more complex life to evolve and proliferate.

Working with Professors Joydip Mukhopadhyay and Gautam Ghosh and other colleagues from the Presidency University in Kolkata, India, the geologists found evidence for chemical weathering of rocks leading to soil formation that occurred in the presence of O2. Using the naturally occurring uranium-lead isotope decay system, which is used for age determinations on geological time-scales, the authors deduced that these events took place at least 3.02 billion years ago. The ancient soil (or paleosol) came from the Singhbhum Craton of Odisha, and was named the ‘Keonjhar Paleosol’ after the nearest local town.

The pattern of chemical weathering preserved in the paleosol is compatible with elevated atmospheric O2 levels at that time. Such substantial levels of oxygen could only have been produced by organisms converting light energy and carbon dioxide to O2 and water. This process, known as photosynthesis, is used by millions of different plant and bacteria species today. It was the proliferation of such oxygen-producing species throughout Earth’s evolutionary trajectory that changed the composition of our atmosphere – adding much more O2 – which was as important for the development of ancient multi-cellular life as it is for us today.

Quentin Crowley, Ussher Assistant Professor in Isotope Analysis and the Environment in the School of Natural Sciences at Trinity, is senior author of the journal article that describes this research which has just been published online in the world’s top-ranked Geology journal, Geology. He said: “This is a very exciting finding, which helps to fill a gap in our knowledge about the evolution of the early Earth. This paleosol from India is telling us that there was a short-lived pulse of atmospheric oxygenation and this occurred considerably earlier than previously envisaged.”

The early Earth was very different to what we see today. Our planet’s early atmosphere was rich in methane and carbon dioxide and had only very low levels of O2. The widely accepted model for evolution of the atmosphere states that O2 levels did not appreciably rise until about 2.4 billion years ago. This ‘Great Oxidation Event’ event enriched the atmosphere and oceans with O2, and heralded one of the biggest shifts in evolutionary history.

Micro-organisms were certainly present before 3.0 billion years ago but they were not likely capable of producing O2 by photosynthesis. Up until very recently however, it has been unclear if any oxygenation events occurred prior to the Great Oxidation Event and the argument for an evolutionary capability of photosynthesis has largely been based on the first signs of an oxygen build-up in the atmosphere and oceans.

“It is the rare examples from the rock record that provide glimpses of how rocks weathered,” added Professor Crowley. “The chemical changes which occur during this weathering tell us something about the composition of the atmosphere at that time. Very few of these ‘paleosols’ have been documented from a period of Earth’s history prior to 2.5 billion years ago. The one we worked on is at least 3.02 billion years old, and it shows chemical evidence that weathering took place in an atmosphere with elevated O2 levels.”

There was virtually no atmospheric O2 present 3.4 billion years ago, but recent work from South African paleosols suggested that by about 2.96 billion years ago O2 levels may have begun to increase. Professor Crowley’s finding therefore moves the goalposts back at least 60 million years, which, given humans have only been on the planet for around a tenth of that time, is not an insignificant drop in the evolutionary ocean.

Professor Crowley concluded: “Our research gives further credence to the notion of early and short-lived atmospheric oxygenation.

This particular example is the oldest known example of oxidative weathering from a terrestrial environment, occurring about 600 million years before the Great Oxidation Event that laid the foundations for the evolution of complex life.”

Geologists prove early Tibetan Plateau was larger than previously thought

This is Syracuse University professor Gregory Hoke. -  Syracuse University
This is Syracuse University professor Gregory Hoke. – Syracuse University

Earth scientists in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences have determined that the Tibetan Plateau-the world’s largest, highest, and flattest plateau-had a larger initial extent than previously documented.

Their discovery is the subject of an article in the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters (Elsevier, 2014).

Gregory Hoke, assistant professor of Earth sciences, and Gregory Wissink, a Ph.D. student in his lab, have co-authored the article with Jing Liu-Zeng, director of the Division of Neotectonics and Geomorphology at the Institute for Geology, part of the China Earthquake Administration; Michael Hren, assistant professor of chemistry at the University of Connecticut; and Carmala Garzione, professor and chair of Earth and environmental sciences at the University of Rochester.

“We’ve determined the elevation history of the southeast margin of the Tibetan Plateau,” says Hoke, who specializes in the interplay between the Earth’s tectonic and surface processes. “By the Eocene epoch (approximately 40 million years ago), the southern part of the plateau extended some 600 miles more to the east than previously documented. This discovery upends a popular model for plateau formation.”

Known as the “Roof of the World,” the Tibetan Plateau covers more than 970,000 square miles in Asia and India and reaches heights of over 15,000 feet. The plateau also contains a host of natural resources, including large mineral deposits and tens of thousands of glaciers, and is the headwaters of many major drainage basins.

Hoke says he was attracted to the topography of the plateau’s southeast margin because it presented an opportunity to use information from minerals formed at the Earth’s surface to infer what happened below them in the crust.

“The tectonic and topographic evolution of the southeast margin has been the subject of considerable controversy,” he says. “Our study provides the first quantitative estimate of the past elevation of the eastern portions of the plateau.”

Historically, geologists have thought that lower crustal flow- a process by which hot, ductile rock material flows from high- to low-pressure zones-helped elevate parts of the plateau about 20 million years ago. (This uplift model has also been used to explain watershed reorganization among some of the world’s largest rivers, including the Yangtze in China.)

But years of studying rock and water samples from the plateau have led Hoke to rethink the area’s history. For starters, his data indicates that the plateau has been at or near its present elevation since the Eocene epoch. Moreover, surface uplift in the southernmost part of the plateau-in and around southern China and northern Vietnam-has been historically small.

“Surface uplift, caused by lower crustal flow, doesn’t explain the evolution of regional river networks,” says Hoke, referring to the process by which a river drainage system is diverted, or captured, from its own bed into that of a neighboring bed. “Our study suggests that river capture and drainage reorganization must have been the result of a slip on the major faults bounding the southeast plateau margin.”

Hoke’s discovery not only makes the plateau larger than previously thought, but also suggests that some of the topography is millions of years younger.

“Our data provides the first direct documentation of the magnitude and geographic extent of elevation change on the southeast margin of the Tibetan Plateau, tens of millions years ago,” Hoke adds. “Constraining the age, spatial extent, and magnitude of ancient topography has a profound effect on how we understand the construction of mountain ranges and high plateaus, such as those in Tibet and the Altiplano region in Bolivia.”

What sculpted Africa’s margin?

Break-up of the supercontinent Gondwana about 130 Million years ago could have lead to a completely different shape of the African and South American continent with an ocean south of today’s Sahara desert, as geoscientists from the University of Sydney and the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences have shown through the use of sophisticated plate tectonic and three-dimensional numerical modelling. The study highlights the importance of rift orientation relative to extension direction as key factor deciding whether an ocean basin opens or an aborted rift basin forms in the continental interior.

For hundreds of millions of years, the southern continents of South America, Africa, Antarctica, Australia, and India were united in the supercontinent Gondwana. While the causes for Gondwana’s fragmentation are still debated, it is clear that the supercontinent first split along along the East African coast in a western and eastern part before separation of South America from Africa took place. Today’s continental margins along the South Atlantic ocean and the subsurface graben structure of the West African Rift system in the African continent, extending from Nigeria northwards to Libya, provide key insights on the processes that shaped present-day Africa and South America. Christian Heine (University of Sydney) and Sascha Brune (GFZ) investigated why the South Atlantic part of this giant rift system evolved into an ocean basin, whereas its northern part along the West African Rift became stuck.

“Extension along the so-called South Atlantic and West African rift systems was about to split the African-South American part of Gondwana North-South into nearly equal halves, generating a South Atlantic and a Saharan Atlantic Ocean”, geoscientist Sascha Brune explains. “In a dramatic plate tectonic twist, however, a competing rift along the present-day Equatorial Atlantic margins, won over the West African rift, causing it to become extinct, avoiding the break-up of the African continent and the formation of a Saharan Atlantic ocean.” The complex numerical models provide a strikingly simple explanation: the larger the angle between rift trend and extensional direction, the more force is required to maintain a rift system. The West African rift featured a nearly orthogonal orientation with respect to westward extension which required distinctly more force than its ultimately successful Equatorial Atlantic opponent.

Rising mountains dried out Central Asia, scientists say

A record of ancient rainfall teased from long-buried sediments in Mongolia is challenging the popular idea that the arid conditions prevalent in Central Asia today were caused by the ancient uplift of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau.

Instead, Stanford scientists say the formation of two lesser mountain ranges, the Hangay and the Altai, may have been the dominant drivers of climate in the region, leading to the expansion of Asia’s largest desert, the Gobi. The findings will be presented on Thursday, Dec. 12, at the annual meeting of the American Geophysical Union (AGU) in San Francisco.

“These results have major implications for understanding the dominant factors behind modern-day Central Asia’s extremely arid climate and the role of mountain ranges in altering regional climate,” said Page Chamberlain, a professor of environmental Earth system science at Stanford.

Scientists previously thought that the formation of the Himalayan mountain range and the Tibetan plateau around 45 million years ago shaped Asia’s driest environments.

“The traditional explanation has been that the uplift of the Himalayas blocked air from the Indian Ocean from reaching central Asia,” said Jeremy Caves, a doctoral student in Chamberlain’s terrestrial paleoclimate research group who was involved in the study.

This process was thought to have created a distinct rain shadow that led to wetter climates in India and Nepal and drier climates in Central Asia. Similarly, the elevation of the Tibetan Plateau was thought to have triggered an atmospheric process called subsidence, in which a mass of air heated by a high elevation slowly sinks into Central Asia.

“The falling air suppresses convective systems such as thunderstorms, and the result is you get really dry environments,” Caves said.

This long-accepted model of how Central Asia’s arid environments were created mostly ignores, however, the existence of the Altai and Hangay, two northern mountain ranges.

Searching for answers

To investigate the effects of the smaller ranges on the regional climate, Caves and his colleagues from Stanford and Rocky Mountain College in Montana traveled to Mongolia in 2011 and 2012 and collected samples of ancient soil, as well as stream and lake sediments from remote sites in the central, southwestern and western parts of the country.

The team carefully chose its sites by scouring the scientific literature for studies of the region conducted by pioneering researchers in past decades.

“A lot of the papers were by Polish and Russian scientists who went there to look for dinosaur fossils,” said Hari Mix, a doctoral student at Stanford who also participated in the research. “Indeed, at many of the sites we visited, there were dinosaur fossils just lying around.”

The earlier researchers recorded the ages and locations of the rocks they excavated as part of their own investigations; Caves and his team used those age estimates to select the most promising sites for their own study.

At each site, the team bagged sediment samples that were later analyzed to determine their carbon isotope content. The relative level of carbon isotopes present in a soil sample is related to the productivity of plants growing in the soil, which is itself dependent on the annual rainfall. Thus, by measuring carbon isotope amounts from different sediment samples of different ages, the team was able to reconstruct past precipitation levels.

An ancient wet period

The new data suggest that rainfall in central and southwestern Mongolia had decreased by 50 to 90 percent in the last several tens of million of years.

“Right now, precipitation in Mongolia is about 5 inches annually,” Caves said. “To explain our data, rainfall had to decrease from 10 inches a year or more to its current value over the last 10 to 30 million years.”

That means that much of Mongolia and Central Asia were still relatively wet even after the formation of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau 45 million years ago. The data show that it wasn’t until about 30 million years ago, when the Hangay Mountains first formed, that rainfall started to decrease. The region began drying out even faster about 5 million to 10 million years ago, when the Altai Mountains began to rise.

The scientists hypothesize that once they formed, the Hangay and Altai ranges created rain shadows of their own that blocked moisture from entering Central Asia.

“As a result, the northern and western sides of these ranges are wet, while the southern and eastern sides are dry,” Caves said.

The team is not discounting the effect of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau entirely, because portions of the Gobi Desert likely already existed before the Hangay or Altai began forming.

“What these smaller mountains did was expand the Gobi north and west into Mongolia,” Caves said.

The uplift of the Hangay and Altai may have had other, more far-reaching implications as well, Caves said. For example, westerly winds in Asia slam up against the Altai today, creating strong cyclonic winds in the process. Under the right conditions, the cyclones pick up large amounts of dust as they snake across the Gobi Desert. That dust can be lofted across the Pacific Ocean and even reach California, where it serves as microscopic seeds for developing raindrops.

The origins of these cyclonic winds, as well as substantial dust storms in China today, may correlate with uplift of the Altai, Caves said. His team plans to return to Mongolia and Kazakhstan next summer to collect more samples and to use climate models to test whether the Altai are responsible for the start of the large dust storms.

“If the Altai are a key part of regulating Central Asia’s climate, we can go and look for evidence of it in the past,” Caves said.

Improving earthquake early warning systems for California and Taiwan

<IMG SRC="/Images/561618626.jpg" WIDTH="350" HEIGHT="319" BORDER="0" ALT="This is a map of the blind-zone radius for California. Yellow and orange colors correspond to regions with small blind zones and red and dark-red
colors correspond to regions with large blind zones. – SRL“>
This is a map of the blind-zone radius for California. Yellow and orange colors correspond to regions with small blind zones and red and dark-red
colors correspond to regions with large blind zones. – SRL

Earthquake early warning systems may provide the public with crucial seconds to prepare for severe shaking. For California, a new study suggests upgrading current technology and relocating some seismic stations would improve the warning time, particularly in areas poorly served by the existing network – south of San Francisco Bay Area to north Los Angeles and north of the San Francisco Bay Area.

A separate case study focuses on the utility of low cost sensors to create a high-density, effective network that can be used for issuing early warnings in Taiwan. Both studies appear in the November issue of the journal Seismological Research Letters (SRL).

“We know where most active faults are in California, and we can smartly place seismic stations to optimize the network,” said Serdar Kuyuk, assistant professor of civil engineering at Sakarya University in Turkey, who conducted the California study while he was a post-doctoral fellow at University of California (UC), Berkeley. Richard Allen, director of the Seismological Laboratory at UC Berkeley, is the co-author of this study.

Japan started to build its EEW system after the 1995 Kobe earthquake and performed well during the 2011 magnitude 9 Tohoku-Oki earthquake. While the U.S. Geological Survey(USGS)/Caltech Southern California Seismic and TriNet Network in Southern California was upgraded in response to the 1994 Northridge quake, the U.S is lagging behind Japan and other countries in developing a fully functional warning system.

“We should not wait until another major quake before improving the early warning system,” said Kuyuk.

Noting California’s recent law that calls for the creation of a statewide earthquake early warning (EEW) system, Kuyuk says “the study is timely and highlights for policymakers where to deploy stations for optimal coverage.” The approach maximizes the warning time and reduces the size of “blind zones” where no warning is possible, while also taking into account budgetary constraints.

Earthquake early warning systems detect the initiation of an earthquake and issue warning alerts of possible forthcoming ground shaking. Seismic stations detect the energy from the compressional P-wave first, followed by the shear and surface waves, which cause the intense shaking and most damage.

The warning time that any system generates depends on many factors, with the most important being the proximity of seismic stations to the earthquake epicenter. Once an alert is sent, the amount of warning time is a function of distance from the epicenter, where more distant locations receive more time.

Areas in “blind zones” do not receive any warning prior to arrival of the more damaging S-wave. The goal, writes Kuyuk and Allen, is to minimize the number of people and key infrastructure within the blind zone. For the more remote earthquakes, such as earthquakes offshore or in unpopulated regions, larger blind zones can be tolerated.

“There are large blind zones between the Bay Area and Los Angeles where there are active faults,” said Kuyuk. “Why? There are only 10 stations along the 150-mile section of the San Andreas Fault. Adding more stations would improve warning for people in these areas, as well as people in LA and the Bay Area should an earthquake start somewhere in between,” said Kuyuk.

Adding stations may not be so simple, according to Allen. “While there is increasing enthusiasm from state and federal legislators to build the earthquake early warning system that the public wants,” said Allen, “the reality of the USGS budget for the earthquake program means that it is becoming impossible to maintain the functionality of the existing network operated by the USGS and the universities.

“The USGS was recently forced to downgrade the telemetry of 58 of the stations in the San Francisco Bay Area in order to reduce costs,” said Allen. “While our SRL paper talks about where additional stations are needed in California to build a warning system, we are unfortunately losing stations.”

In California, the California Integrated Seismic Network (CISN) consists of multiple networks, with 2900 seismic stations at varying distances from each other, ranging from 2 to 100 km. Of the some 2900 stations, 377 are equipped to contribute to an EEW system.

Kuyuk and Allen estimate 10 km is the ideal distance between seismic stations in areas along major faults or near major cities. For other areas, an interstation distance of 20 km would provide sufficient warning. The authors suggest greater density of stations and coverage could be achieved by upgrading technology used by the existing stations, integrating Nevada stations into the current network, relocating some existing stations and adding new ones to the network.

The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation funded this study.

A Low-Cost Solution in Taiwan

In a separate study, Yih-Min Wu of National Taiwan University reports on the successful experiment to use low cost MEMS sensors to build a high-density seismic network to support an early warning system for Taiwan.

MEMS accelerometers are tiny sensors used in common devices, such as smart phones and laptops. These sensors are relatively cheap and have proven to be sensitive detectors of ground motion, particularly from large earthquakes.

The current EEW system in Taiwan consists of 109 seismic stations that can provide alerts within 20 seconds following the initial detection of an earthquake. Wu sought to reduce the time between earthquake and initial alert, thereby increasing the potential warning time.

The EEW research group at National Taiwan University developed a P-wave alert device named “Palert” that uses MEMS accelerometers for onsite earthquake early warning, at one-tenth the cost of traditional strong motion instruments.

From June 2012 to May 2013 Wu and his colleagues tested a network of 400 Palert devices deployed throughout Taiwan, primarily at elementary schools to take advantage of existing power and Internet connections and where they can be used to educate students about earthquake hazard mitigation.

During the testing period, the Palert system functioned similarly to the existing EEW system, which consists of the conventional strong motion instruments. With four times as many stations, the Palert network can provide a detailed shaking map for damage assessments, which it did for the March 2013 magnitude 6.1 Nantou quake.

Wu suggests the relatively low cost Palert device may have commercial potential and can be readily integrated into existing seismic networks to increase coverage density of EEW systems. In addition to China, Indonesia and Mexico, plans call for the Palert devices to be installed near New Delhi, India to test the feasibility of an EEW system there.

Earthquakes and tectonics in Pamir Tien Shan

Earthquake damage to buildings is mainly due to the existing shear waves which transfer their energy during an earthquake to the houses. These shear waves are significantly influenced by the underground and the topography of the surrounding area. Detailed knowledge of the landform and the near-surface underground structure is, therefore, an important prerequisite for a local seismic hazard assessment and for the evaluation of the ground-effect, which can strongly modify and increase local ground motion.

As described in the latest issue of Geophysical Journal International, a team of scientists from the GFZ German Research Center for Geosciences could show that it is possible to map complex shear wave velocity structures almost in real time by means of a newly developed tomgraphic approach.

The method is based on ambient seismic noise recordings and analyses. “We use small, hardly noticeable amplitude ground motions as well as anthropogenic ground vibrations”, Marco Pilz, a scientist at GFZ, explains. “With the help of these small signals we can obtain detailed images of the shallow seismic velocity structure”. In particular, images and velocity changes in the underground due to earthquakes and landslides can be obtained in almost real time.

“What is new about our method is the direct calculation of the shear wave velocity. Moreover, we are working on a local, small-scale level — compared to many other studies”, Marco Pilz continues.

This method has already been successfully applied: Many regions of Central Asia are threatened by landslides. Since the shear wave velocity usually drops significantly before a landslide slip this technique offers the chance to monitor changes in landslide prone areas almost in real time.

Further application can be used in earthquake research. The authors were able to map the detailed structure of a section of the Issyk-Ata fault, Kyrgyzstan, which runs along the southern border of the capital city, Bishkek, with a population of approx. 900.000 inhabitants. They showed that close to the surface of the mapped section a splitting into two different small fault branches can be observed. This can influence the pace of expansion or also an eventual halting of the propagation on the main fault.

Central Asia is extensively seismically endangered; the accompanying processes and risks are investigated by the Central-Asian Institute of Applied Geosciences (CAIAG) in Bishkek, a joint institution established by the GFZ and the Kyrgyz government.

Why do these earthquakes occur?

The Pamir and Tien Shan are the result of the crash of two continental plates: the collision of India and Eurasia causes the high mountain ranges. This process is still ongoing today and causes breaking of the Earths crust, of which earthquakes are the consequence.

A second group of GFZ-scientists has investigated together with colleagues from Tajikistan and CAIAG the tectonic process of collision in this region. They were, for the first time, able to image continental crust descending into the Earth’s mantle. In the scientific journal Earth and Planetary Sciences Letters the scientists report that this subduction of continental crust has, to date, never been directly observed. To make their images, the scientists applied a special seismological method (so-called receiver function-analysis) on seismograms that had been collected in a two years long field experiment in the Tien Shan-Pamir-Hindu Kush area. Here, the collision of the Indian and Eurasian plates presents an extreme dimension.

“These extreme conditions cause the Eurasian lower crust to subduct into the Earth’s mantle”, explains Felix Schneider from the GFZ German Research Centre for Geosciences.” Such a subduction can normally be observed during the collision of ocean crust with continental crust, as the ocean floors are heavier than continental rock.”

Findings at the surface of metamorphic rocks that must have arisen from ultra-high pressures deep in the Earth’s mantle also provide evidence for subduction of continental crust in the Pamir region. Furthermore, the question arises, how the occurrence of numerous earthquakes at unusual depths of down to 300 km in the upper mantel can be explained. Through the observation of the subducting part of the Eurasian lower crust, this puzzle could, however, be solved.

International research team discovers new mineral

Qingsongite is a recently discovered mineral. Coesite and osbornite are also ultra-high pressure minerals. -  L. Dobrzhinetskaya, UC Riverside.
Qingsongite is a recently discovered mineral. Coesite and osbornite are also ultra-high pressure minerals. – L. Dobrzhinetskaya, UC Riverside.

Geologists at the University of California, Riverside have discovered a new mineral, cubic boron nitride, which they have named “qingsongite.”

The discovery, made in 2009, was officially approved this week by the International Mineralogical Association.

The UC Riverside geologists, Larissa Dobrzhinetskaya and Harry Green in the Department of Earth Sciences, were joined by scientists at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the University of Maine and from institutions in China and Germany in making the discovery.

“The uniqueness of qingsongite is that it is the first boron mineral that was found to be formed at extreme conditions in deep Earth,” Dobrzhinetskaya said. “All other known boron minerals are found at Earth’s surface.”

The mineral was found in the southern Tibetan mountains of China within chromium-rich rocks of the paleooceanic crust that was subducted to a depth of 190 miles and recrystallized there at a temperature of about 2372 degrees Fahrenheit and pressure of about 118430 atmospheres.

“About 180 million years ago the rocks were returned back to shallow levels of the Earth by plate tectonic processes leading to the closure of the huge Paleo-Thethys ocean – an ancient Paleozoic ocean – and the collision of India with the Asian lithospheric plate,” Dobrzhinetskaya explained.

Until now, cubic boron nitride, created first in the laboratory in 1957, was known as an important technological material. Because its atomic structure bears resemblance to carbon bonds in diamond, it has high density and could be as hard as diamond.

To date, more than 4700 species of minerals have been recognized, with at least 100 proposals for new minerals and their names submitted each year to the International Mineralogical Association for approval.

Qingsongite was named after Qingsong Fang (1939-2010), a professor at the Institute of Geology, the Chinese Academy of Geological Sciences, who found the first diamond in the Tibetan chromium-rich rocks in the late 1970s, and contributed to the discovery of four new mineral species.

Newly discovered flux in the Earth may solve missing-mantle mystery

It’s widely thought that the Earth arose from violent origins: Some 4.5 billion years ago, a maelstrom of gas and dust circled in a massive disc around the sun, gathering in rocky clumps to form asteroids. These asteroids, gaining momentum, whirled around a fledgling solar system, repeatedly smashing into each other to create larger bodies of rubble – the largest of which eventually cooled to form the planets.

Countless theories, simulations and geologic observations support such a scenario. But there remains one lingering mystery: If the Earth arose from the collision of asteroids, its composition should resemble that of meteoroids, the small particles that break off from asteroids.

But to date, scientists have found that, quite literally, something doesn’t add up: Namely, the Earth’s mantle – the layer between the planet’s crust and core – is missing an amount of lead found in meteorites whose composition has been analyzed following impact with the Earth.

Much of the Earth is composed of rocks with a high ratio of uranium to lead (uranium naturally decays to lead over time). However, according to standard theories of planetary evolution, the Earth should harbor a reservoir of mantle somewhere in its interior that has a low ratio of uranium to lead, to match the composition of meteorites. But such a reservoir has yet to be discovered – a detail that leaves Earth’s origins hazy.

Now researchers in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences have identified a “hidden flux” of material in the Earth’s mantle that would make the planet’s overall composition much more similar to that of meteorites. This reservoir likely takes the form of extremely dense, lead-laden rocks that crystallize beneath island arcs, strings of volcanoes that rise up at the boundary of tectonic plates.

As two massive plates push against each other, one plate subducts, or slides, under the other, pushing material from the crust down into the mantle. At the same time, molten material from the mantle rises up to the crust, and is ejected via volcanoes onto the Earth’s surface.

According to the MIT researchers’ observations and calculations, however, up to 70 percent of this rising magma crystallizes into dense rock – dropping, leadlike, back into the mantle, where it remains relatively undisturbed. The lead-heavy flux, they say, puts the composition of the Earth’s mantle on a par with that of meteorites.

“Now that we know the composition of this flux, we can calculate that there’s tons of this stuff dropping down from the base of the crust into the mantle, so it is likely an important reservoir,” says Oliver Jagoutz, an assistant professor of geology at MIT. “This has a lot of implications for understanding how the Earth evolved through history.”

Jagoutz and his colleague Max Schmidt, of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, have detailed their results in a paper published in Earth and Planetary Science Letters.

A mantle exposed

Measuring the composition of material that has dropped into the mantle is a nearly impossible task. Jagoutz estimates that such dense rocks would form at a depth of 40 to 50 kilometers below the surface, beyond the reach of conventional sampling techniques.

There is, however, one place on earth where such a depth of the crust and mantle is exposed: a region of northern Pakistan called the Kohistan arc. Forty million years ago, this island arc was crushed between India and Asia as the two plates collided.

“When India came in, it slammed into the arc, and the arc extended and rotated itself,” Jagoutz says. “Because of that, we now have a cross-section of the mantle-to-crust transition. This is the only place on Earth where this exists.”

On various trips from 2000 to 2007, Jagoutz trekked through the Kohistan arc region, collecting rocks from various parts of the arc’s crust and mantle. Bringing them back to the lab, he analyzed the rocks’ density and composition, discovering that some were “density-unstable” – much denser than the mantle. These denser rocks could potentially sink into the mantle, creating a hidden reservoir.

Adding up to an asteroid origin

The researchers measured the rocks’ composition, and found that the denser rocks contained much more lead than uranium – exactly the ratio predicted for the missing reservoir of material. Jagoutz then performed a mass balance (a simple conservation-of-mass calculation) to determine how much dense rock drops into the mantle, based on the composition of the region’s crust, rocks and mantle: Essentially, the mass of the Kohistan arc, minus whatever material drops into the mantle, should equal the material that comes out of the mantle.

Jagoutz and Schmidt solved the equation for 10 common elements. From their calculations, they found that 70 percent of the magma that rises from the mantle must ultimately drop back down, relatively heavy with lead. Applying this statistic to other island arcs in the world – such as the Andean volcanic belt and the Cascade Range – they found that the amount of material dropped into the mantle globally equals the composition and quantity of the so-called missing reservoir – a finding that suggests that Earth did indeed form from the collision of meteorites.

“If we are right, one of the questions we have is: Why is the Earth capable of hiding something from us? Why is there never a volcano that brings up these rocks?” Jagoutz adds. “You’d think it’d come back up, but it doesn’t. It’s actually interesting.