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.”

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.”

Scientists obtain new data on the weather 10,000 years ago from sediments of a lake in Sierra Nevada

University of Granada researchers are collecting samples in an Alpine lake in Sierra Nevada (Granada). -  UGRdivulga
University of Granada researchers are collecting samples in an Alpine lake in Sierra Nevada (Granada). – UGRdivulga

A research project which counts with the participation of the University of Granada has revealed new data on the climate change that took place in the Iberian Peninsula around the mid Holocene (around 6.000 years ago), when the amount of atmospheric dust coming from the Sahara increased. The data came from a study of the sediments found in an Alpine lake in Sierra Nevada (Granada)

This study, published in the journal Chemical Geology, is based on the sedimentation of atmospheric dust from the Sahara, a very frequent phenomenon in the South of the Iberian Peninsula. This phenomenon is easily identified currently, for instance, when a thin layer of red dust can be occasionally found on vehicles.

Scientists have studied an Alpine lake in Sierra Nevada, 3020 metres above sea level, called Rio Seco lake. They collected samples from sediments 1,5 metres deep, which represent approximately the last 11.000 years (a period known as Holocene), and they found, among other paleoclimate indicators, evidence of atmospheric dust coming from the Sahara. According to one of the researchers in this study, Antonio García-Alix Daroca, from the University of Granada, “the sedimentation of this atmospheric dust over the course of the Holocene has affected the vital cycles of the lakes in Sierra Nevada, since such dust contains a variety of nutrients and / or minerals which do not abound at such heights and which are required by certain organisms which dwell there.”

More atmospheric dust from the Sahara

This study has also revealed the existence of a relatively humid period during the early phase of the Holocene (10.000 – 6.000 years approximately). This period witnessed the onset of an aridification tendency which has lasted until our days, and it has coincided with an increase in the fall of atmospheric dust in the South of the Ibeian Peninsula, as a result of African dust storms.

“We have also detected certain climate cycles ultimately related to solar causes or the North Atlantic Oscillacion (NAO)”, according to García-Alix. “Since we do not have direct indicators of these climate and environmental changes, such as humidity and temperature data, in order to conduct this research we have resorted to indirect indicators, such as fossil polen, carbons and organic and inorganic geochemistry within the sediments”.

Scientists obtain new data on the weather 10,000 years ago from sediments of a lake in Sierra Nevada

University of Granada researchers are collecting samples in an Alpine lake in Sierra Nevada (Granada). -  UGRdivulga
University of Granada researchers are collecting samples in an Alpine lake in Sierra Nevada (Granada). – UGRdivulga

A research project which counts with the participation of the University of Granada has revealed new data on the climate change that took place in the Iberian Peninsula around the mid Holocene (around 6.000 years ago), when the amount of atmospheric dust coming from the Sahara increased. The data came from a study of the sediments found in an Alpine lake in Sierra Nevada (Granada)

This study, published in the journal Chemical Geology, is based on the sedimentation of atmospheric dust from the Sahara, a very frequent phenomenon in the South of the Iberian Peninsula. This phenomenon is easily identified currently, for instance, when a thin layer of red dust can be occasionally found on vehicles.

Scientists have studied an Alpine lake in Sierra Nevada, 3020 metres above sea level, called Rio Seco lake. They collected samples from sediments 1,5 metres deep, which represent approximately the last 11.000 years (a period known as Holocene), and they found, among other paleoclimate indicators, evidence of atmospheric dust coming from the Sahara. According to one of the researchers in this study, Antonio García-Alix Daroca, from the University of Granada, “the sedimentation of this atmospheric dust over the course of the Holocene has affected the vital cycles of the lakes in Sierra Nevada, since such dust contains a variety of nutrients and / or minerals which do not abound at such heights and which are required by certain organisms which dwell there.”

More atmospheric dust from the Sahara

This study has also revealed the existence of a relatively humid period during the early phase of the Holocene (10.000 – 6.000 years approximately). This period witnessed the onset of an aridification tendency which has lasted until our days, and it has coincided with an increase in the fall of atmospheric dust in the South of the Ibeian Peninsula, as a result of African dust storms.

“We have also detected certain climate cycles ultimately related to solar causes or the North Atlantic Oscillacion (NAO)”, according to García-Alix. “Since we do not have direct indicators of these climate and environmental changes, such as humidity and temperature data, in order to conduct this research we have resorted to indirect indicators, such as fossil polen, carbons and organic and inorganic geochemistry within the sediments”.

Ancient shellfish remains rewrite 10,000-year history of El Nino cycles

The middens are ancient dumping sites that typically contain a mix of mollusk shells, fish and bird bones, ceramics, cloth, charcoal, maize and other plants. -  M. Carré / Univ. of Montpellier
The middens are ancient dumping sites that typically contain a mix of mollusk shells, fish and bird bones, ceramics, cloth, charcoal, maize and other plants. – M. Carré / Univ. of Montpellier

The planet’s largest and most powerful driver of climate changes from one year to the next, the El Niño Southern Oscillation in the tropical Pacific Ocean, was widely thought to have been weaker in ancient times because of a different configuration of the Earth’s orbit. But scientists analyzing 25-foot piles of ancient shells have found that the El Niños 10,000 years ago were as strong and frequent as the ones we experience today.

The results, from the University of Washington and University of Montpellier, question how well computer models can reproduce historical El Niño cycles, or predict how they could change under future climates. The paper is now online and will appear in an upcoming issue of Science.

“We thought we understood what influences the El Niño mode of climate variation, and we’ve been able to show that we actually don’t understand it very well,” said Julian Sachs, a UW professor of oceanography.

The ancient shellfish feasts also upend a widely held interpretation of past climate.

“Our data contradicts the hypothesis that El Niño activity was very reduced 10,000 years ago, and then slowly increased since then,” said first author Matthieu Carré, who did the research as a UW postdoctoral researcher and now holds a faculty position at the University of Montpellier in France.

In 2007, while at the UW-based Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, Carré accompanied archaeologists to seven sites in coastal Peru. Together they sampled 25-foot-tall piles of shells from Mesodesma donacium clams eaten and then discarded over centuries into piles that archaeologists call middens.

While in graduate school, Carré had developed a technique to analyze shell layers to get ocean temperatures, using carbon dating of charcoal from fires to get the year, and the ratio of oxygen isotopes in the growth layers to get the water temperatures as the shell was forming.

The shells provide 1- to 3-year-long records of monthly temperature of the Pacific Ocean along the coast of Peru. Combining layers of shells from each site gives water temperatures for intervals spanning 100 to 1,000 years during the past 10,000 years.

The new record shows that 10,000 years ago the El Niño cycles were strong, contradicting the current leading interpretations. Roughly 7,000 years ago the shells show a shift to the central Pacific of the most severe El Niño impacts, followed by a lull in the strength and occurrence of El Niño from about 6,000 to 4,000 years ago.

One possible explanation for the surprising finding of a strong El Niño 10,000 years ago was that some other factor was compensating for the dampening effect expected from cyclical changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun during that period.

“The best candidate is the polar ice sheet, which was melting very fast in this period and may have increased El Niño activity by changing ocean currents,” Carré said.

Around 6,000 years ago most of the ice age floes would have finished melting, so the effect of Earth’s orbital geometry might have taken over then to cause the period of weak El Niños.

In previous studies, warm-water shells and evidence of flooding in Andean lakes had been interpreted as signs of a much weaker El Niño around 10,000 years ago.

The new data is more reliable, Carré said, for three reasons: the Peruvian coast is strongly affected by El Niño; the shells record ocean temperature, which is the most important parameter for the El Niño cycles; and the ability to record seasonal changes, the timescale at which El Niño can be observed.

“Climate models and a variety of datasets had concluded that El Niños were essentially nonexistent, did not occur, before 6,000 to 8,000 years ago,” Sachs said. “Our results very clearly show that this is not the case, and suggest that current understanding of the El Niño system is incomplete.

Ancient shellfish remains rewrite 10,000-year history of El Nino cycles

The middens are ancient dumping sites that typically contain a mix of mollusk shells, fish and bird bones, ceramics, cloth, charcoal, maize and other plants. -  M. Carré / Univ. of Montpellier
The middens are ancient dumping sites that typically contain a mix of mollusk shells, fish and bird bones, ceramics, cloth, charcoal, maize and other plants. – M. Carré / Univ. of Montpellier

The planet’s largest and most powerful driver of climate changes from one year to the next, the El Niño Southern Oscillation in the tropical Pacific Ocean, was widely thought to have been weaker in ancient times because of a different configuration of the Earth’s orbit. But scientists analyzing 25-foot piles of ancient shells have found that the El Niños 10,000 years ago were as strong and frequent as the ones we experience today.

The results, from the University of Washington and University of Montpellier, question how well computer models can reproduce historical El Niño cycles, or predict how they could change under future climates. The paper is now online and will appear in an upcoming issue of Science.

“We thought we understood what influences the El Niño mode of climate variation, and we’ve been able to show that we actually don’t understand it very well,” said Julian Sachs, a UW professor of oceanography.

The ancient shellfish feasts also upend a widely held interpretation of past climate.

“Our data contradicts the hypothesis that El Niño activity was very reduced 10,000 years ago, and then slowly increased since then,” said first author Matthieu Carré, who did the research as a UW postdoctoral researcher and now holds a faculty position at the University of Montpellier in France.

In 2007, while at the UW-based Joint Institute for the Study of the Atmosphere and Ocean, Carré accompanied archaeologists to seven sites in coastal Peru. Together they sampled 25-foot-tall piles of shells from Mesodesma donacium clams eaten and then discarded over centuries into piles that archaeologists call middens.

While in graduate school, Carré had developed a technique to analyze shell layers to get ocean temperatures, using carbon dating of charcoal from fires to get the year, and the ratio of oxygen isotopes in the growth layers to get the water temperatures as the shell was forming.

The shells provide 1- to 3-year-long records of monthly temperature of the Pacific Ocean along the coast of Peru. Combining layers of shells from each site gives water temperatures for intervals spanning 100 to 1,000 years during the past 10,000 years.

The new record shows that 10,000 years ago the El Niño cycles were strong, contradicting the current leading interpretations. Roughly 7,000 years ago the shells show a shift to the central Pacific of the most severe El Niño impacts, followed by a lull in the strength and occurrence of El Niño from about 6,000 to 4,000 years ago.

One possible explanation for the surprising finding of a strong El Niño 10,000 years ago was that some other factor was compensating for the dampening effect expected from cyclical changes in Earth’s orbit around the sun during that period.

“The best candidate is the polar ice sheet, which was melting very fast in this period and may have increased El Niño activity by changing ocean currents,” Carré said.

Around 6,000 years ago most of the ice age floes would have finished melting, so the effect of Earth’s orbital geometry might have taken over then to cause the period of weak El Niños.

In previous studies, warm-water shells and evidence of flooding in Andean lakes had been interpreted as signs of a much weaker El Niño around 10,000 years ago.

The new data is more reliable, Carré said, for three reasons: the Peruvian coast is strongly affected by El Niño; the shells record ocean temperature, which is the most important parameter for the El Niño cycles; and the ability to record seasonal changes, the timescale at which El Niño can be observed.

“Climate models and a variety of datasets had concluded that El Niños were essentially nonexistent, did not occur, before 6,000 to 8,000 years ago,” Sachs said. “Our results very clearly show that this is not the case, and suggest that current understanding of the El Niño system is incomplete.

Volcano discovered smoldering under a kilometer of ice in West Antarctica

Mount Sidley, at the leading edge of the Executive Committee Range in Marie Byrd Land is the last volcano in the chain that rises above the surface of the ice. But a group of seismologists has detected new volcanic activity under the ice about 30 miles ahead of Mount Sidley in the direction of the range's migration. The new finding suggests that the source of magma is moving beyond the chain beneath the crust and the Antarctic Ice Sheet. -  Doug Wiens
Mount Sidley, at the leading edge of the Executive Committee Range in Marie Byrd Land is the last volcano in the chain that rises above the surface of the ice. But a group of seismologists has detected new volcanic activity under the ice about 30 miles ahead of Mount Sidley in the direction of the range’s migration. The new finding suggests that the source of magma is moving beyond the chain beneath the crust and the Antarctic Ice Sheet. – Doug Wiens

It wasn’t what they were looking for but that only made the discovery all the more exciting.

In January 2010 a team of scientists had set up two crossing lines of seismographs across Marie Byrd Land in West Antarctica. It was the first time the scientists had deployed many instruments in the interior of the continent that could operate year-round even in the coldest parts of Antarctica.

Like a giant CT machine, the seismograph array used disturbances created by distant earthquakes to make images of the ice and rock deep within West Antarctica.

There were big questions to be asked and answered. The goal, says Doug Wiens, professor of earth and planetary science at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the project’s principle investigators, was essentially to weigh the ice sheet to help reconstruct Antarctica’s climate history. But to do this accurately the scientists had to know how the earth’s mantle would respond to an ice burden, and that depended on whether it was hot and fluid or cool and viscous. The seismic data would allow them to map the mantle’s properties.

In the meantime, automated-event-detection software was put to work to comb the data for anything unusual.

When it found two bursts of seismic events between January 2010 and March 2011, Wiens’ PhD student Amanda Lough looked more closely to see what was rattling the continent’s bones.

Was it rock grinding on rock, ice groaning over ice, or, perhaps, hot gases and liquid rock forcing their way through cracks in a volcanic complex?

Uncertain at first, the more Lough and her colleagues looked, the more convinced they became that a new volcano was forming a kilometer beneath the ice.

The discovery of the new as yet unnamed volcano is announced in the Nov. 17 advanced online issue of Nature Geoscience.

Following the trail of clues


The teams that install seismographs in Antarctica are given first crack at the data. Lough had done her bit as part of the WUSTL team, traveling to East Antarctica three times to install or remove stations in East Antarctica.

In 2010 many of the instruments were moved to West Antarctica and Wiens asked Lough to look at the seismic data coming in, the first large-scale dataset from this part of the continent.

“I started seeing events that kept occurring at the same location, which was odd, “Lough said. “Then I realized they were close to some mountains-but not right on top of them.”

“My first thought was, ‘Okay, maybe its just coincidence.’ But then I looked more closely and realized that the mountains were actually volcanoes and there was an age progression to the range. The volcanoes closest to the seismic events were the youngest ones.”

The events were weak and very low frequency, which strongly suggested they weren’t tectonic in origin. While low-magnitude seismic events of tectonic origin typically have frequencies of 10 to 20 cycles per second, this shaking was dominated by frequencies of 2 to 4 cycles per second.

Ruling out ice


But glacial processes can generate low-frequency events. If the events weren’t tectonic could they be glacial?

To probe farther, Lough used a global computer model of seismic velocities to “relocate” the hypocenters of the events to account for the known seismic velocities along different paths through the Earth. This procedure collapsed the swarm clusters to a third their original size.

It also showed that almost all of the events had occurred at depths of 25 to 40 kilometers (15 to 25 miles below the surface). This is extraordinarily deep-deep enough to be near the boundary between the earth’s crust and mantle, called the Moho, and more or less rules out a glacial origin.

It also casts doubt on a tectonic one. “A tectonic event might have a hypocenter 10 to 15 kilometers (6 to 9 miles) deep, but at 25 to 40 kilometers, these were way too deep,” Lough says.

A colleague suggested that the event waveforms looked like Deep Long Period earthquakes, or DPLs, which occur in volcanic areas, have the same frequency characteristics and are as deep. “Everything matches up,” Lough says.

An ash layer encased in ice


The seismologists also talked to Duncan Young and Don Blankenship of the University of Texas who fly airborne radar over Antarctica to produce topographic maps of the bedrock. “In these maps, you can see that there’s elevation in the bed topography at the same location as the seismic events,” Lough says.

The radar images also showed a layer of ash buried under the ice. “They see this layer all around our group of earthquakes and only in this area,” Lough says.

“Their best guess is that it came from Mount Waesche, an existing volcano near Mt Sidley. But that is also interesting because scientists had no idea when Mount Waesche was last active, and the ash layer is sets the age of the eruption at 8,000 years ago. “

What’s up down there?


The case for volcanic origin has been made. But what exactly is causing the seismic activity?

“Most mountains in Antarctica are not volcanic,” Wiens says, “but most in this area are. Is it because East and West Antarctica are slowly rifting apart? We don’t know exactly. But we think there is probably a hot spot in the mantle here producing magma far beneath the surface.”

“People aren’t really sure what causes DPLs,” Lough says. “It seems to vary by volcanic complex, but most people think it’s the movement of magma and other fluids that leads to pressure-induced vibrations in cracks within volcanic and hydrothermal systems.”

Will the new volcano erupt?


“Definitely,” Lough says. “In fact because of the radar shows a mountain beneath the ice I think it has erupted in the past, before the rumblings we recorded.

Will the eruptions punch through a kilometer or more of ice above it?


The scientists calculated that an enormous eruption, one that released a thousand times more energy than the typical eruption, would be necessary to breach the ice above the volcano.

On the other hand a subglacial eruption and the accompanying heat flow will melt a lot of ice. “The volcano will create millions of gallons of water beneath the ice-many lakes full,” says Wiens. This water will rush beneath the ice towards the sea and feed into the hydrological catchment of the MacAyeal Ice Stream, one of several major ice streams draining ice from Marie Byrd Land into the Ross Ice Shelf.

By lubricating the bedrock, it will speed the flow of the overlying ice, perhaps increasing the rate of ice-mass loss in West Antarctica.

“We weren’t expecting to find anything like this,” Wiens says

Volcano discovered smoldering under a kilometer of ice in West Antarctica

Mount Sidley, at the leading edge of the Executive Committee Range in Marie Byrd Land is the last volcano in the chain that rises above the surface of the ice. But a group of seismologists has detected new volcanic activity under the ice about 30 miles ahead of Mount Sidley in the direction of the range's migration. The new finding suggests that the source of magma is moving beyond the chain beneath the crust and the Antarctic Ice Sheet. -  Doug Wiens
Mount Sidley, at the leading edge of the Executive Committee Range in Marie Byrd Land is the last volcano in the chain that rises above the surface of the ice. But a group of seismologists has detected new volcanic activity under the ice about 30 miles ahead of Mount Sidley in the direction of the range’s migration. The new finding suggests that the source of magma is moving beyond the chain beneath the crust and the Antarctic Ice Sheet. – Doug Wiens

It wasn’t what they were looking for but that only made the discovery all the more exciting.

In January 2010 a team of scientists had set up two crossing lines of seismographs across Marie Byrd Land in West Antarctica. It was the first time the scientists had deployed many instruments in the interior of the continent that could operate year-round even in the coldest parts of Antarctica.

Like a giant CT machine, the seismograph array used disturbances created by distant earthquakes to make images of the ice and rock deep within West Antarctica.

There were big questions to be asked and answered. The goal, says Doug Wiens, professor of earth and planetary science at Washington University in St. Louis and one of the project’s principle investigators, was essentially to weigh the ice sheet to help reconstruct Antarctica’s climate history. But to do this accurately the scientists had to know how the earth’s mantle would respond to an ice burden, and that depended on whether it was hot and fluid or cool and viscous. The seismic data would allow them to map the mantle’s properties.

In the meantime, automated-event-detection software was put to work to comb the data for anything unusual.

When it found two bursts of seismic events between January 2010 and March 2011, Wiens’ PhD student Amanda Lough looked more closely to see what was rattling the continent’s bones.

Was it rock grinding on rock, ice groaning over ice, or, perhaps, hot gases and liquid rock forcing their way through cracks in a volcanic complex?

Uncertain at first, the more Lough and her colleagues looked, the more convinced they became that a new volcano was forming a kilometer beneath the ice.

The discovery of the new as yet unnamed volcano is announced in the Nov. 17 advanced online issue of Nature Geoscience.

Following the trail of clues


The teams that install seismographs in Antarctica are given first crack at the data. Lough had done her bit as part of the WUSTL team, traveling to East Antarctica three times to install or remove stations in East Antarctica.

In 2010 many of the instruments were moved to West Antarctica and Wiens asked Lough to look at the seismic data coming in, the first large-scale dataset from this part of the continent.

“I started seeing events that kept occurring at the same location, which was odd, “Lough said. “Then I realized they were close to some mountains-but not right on top of them.”

“My first thought was, ‘Okay, maybe its just coincidence.’ But then I looked more closely and realized that the mountains were actually volcanoes and there was an age progression to the range. The volcanoes closest to the seismic events were the youngest ones.”

The events were weak and very low frequency, which strongly suggested they weren’t tectonic in origin. While low-magnitude seismic events of tectonic origin typically have frequencies of 10 to 20 cycles per second, this shaking was dominated by frequencies of 2 to 4 cycles per second.

Ruling out ice


But glacial processes can generate low-frequency events. If the events weren’t tectonic could they be glacial?

To probe farther, Lough used a global computer model of seismic velocities to “relocate” the hypocenters of the events to account for the known seismic velocities along different paths through the Earth. This procedure collapsed the swarm clusters to a third their original size.

It also showed that almost all of the events had occurred at depths of 25 to 40 kilometers (15 to 25 miles below the surface). This is extraordinarily deep-deep enough to be near the boundary between the earth’s crust and mantle, called the Moho, and more or less rules out a glacial origin.

It also casts doubt on a tectonic one. “A tectonic event might have a hypocenter 10 to 15 kilometers (6 to 9 miles) deep, but at 25 to 40 kilometers, these were way too deep,” Lough says.

A colleague suggested that the event waveforms looked like Deep Long Period earthquakes, or DPLs, which occur in volcanic areas, have the same frequency characteristics and are as deep. “Everything matches up,” Lough says.

An ash layer encased in ice


The seismologists also talked to Duncan Young and Don Blankenship of the University of Texas who fly airborne radar over Antarctica to produce topographic maps of the bedrock. “In these maps, you can see that there’s elevation in the bed topography at the same location as the seismic events,” Lough says.

The radar images also showed a layer of ash buried under the ice. “They see this layer all around our group of earthquakes and only in this area,” Lough says.

“Their best guess is that it came from Mount Waesche, an existing volcano near Mt Sidley. But that is also interesting because scientists had no idea when Mount Waesche was last active, and the ash layer is sets the age of the eruption at 8,000 years ago. “

What’s up down there?


The case for volcanic origin has been made. But what exactly is causing the seismic activity?

“Most mountains in Antarctica are not volcanic,” Wiens says, “but most in this area are. Is it because East and West Antarctica are slowly rifting apart? We don’t know exactly. But we think there is probably a hot spot in the mantle here producing magma far beneath the surface.”

“People aren’t really sure what causes DPLs,” Lough says. “It seems to vary by volcanic complex, but most people think it’s the movement of magma and other fluids that leads to pressure-induced vibrations in cracks within volcanic and hydrothermal systems.”

Will the new volcano erupt?


“Definitely,” Lough says. “In fact because of the radar shows a mountain beneath the ice I think it has erupted in the past, before the rumblings we recorded.

Will the eruptions punch through a kilometer or more of ice above it?


The scientists calculated that an enormous eruption, one that released a thousand times more energy than the typical eruption, would be necessary to breach the ice above the volcano.

On the other hand a subglacial eruption and the accompanying heat flow will melt a lot of ice. “The volcano will create millions of gallons of water beneath the ice-many lakes full,” says Wiens. This water will rush beneath the ice towards the sea and feed into the hydrological catchment of the MacAyeal Ice Stream, one of several major ice streams draining ice from Marie Byrd Land into the Ross Ice Shelf.

By lubricating the bedrock, it will speed the flow of the overlying ice, perhaps increasing the rate of ice-mass loss in West Antarctica.

“We weren’t expecting to find anything like this,” Wiens says

Study finds earlier peak for Spain’s glaciers

Jane Willenbring (upper right) takes samples to date a boulder in Spain's Bejar mountain range. Her findings helped show that ancient glaciers in the region reached their maximum size several thousands of years earlier than once believed. -  University of Pennsylvania
Jane Willenbring (upper right) takes samples to date a boulder in Spain’s Bejar mountain range. Her findings helped show that ancient glaciers in the region reached their maximum size several thousands of years earlier than once believed. – University of Pennsylvania

The last glacial maximum was a time when Earth’s far northern and far southern latitudes were largely covered in ice sheets and sea levels were low. Over much of the planet, glaciers were at their greatest extent roughly 20,000 years ago. But according to a study headed by University of Pennsylvania geologist Jane Willenbring, that wasn’t true in at least one part of southern Europe. Due to local effects of temperature and precipitation, the local glacial maximum occurred considerably earlier, around 26,000 years ago.

The finding sheds new light on how regional climate has varied over time, providing information that could lead to more-accurate global climate models, which predict what changes Earth will experience in the future.

Willenbring, an assistant professor in Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Arts and Sciences, teamed with researchers from Spain, the United Kingdom, China and the United States to pursue this study of the ancient glaciers of southern Europe.

“We wanted to unravel why and when glaciers grow and shrink,” Willenbring said.

In the study site in central Spain, it is relatively straightforward to discern the size of ancient glaciers, because the ice carried and dropped boulders at the margin. Thus a ring of boulders marks the edge of the old glacier.

It is not as easy to determine what caused the glacier to grow, however. Glaciers need both moisture and cold temperatures to expand. Studying the boulders that rim the ancient glaciers alone cannot distinguish these contributions. Caves, however, provide a way to differentiate the two factors. Stalagmites and stalactites – the stony projections that grow from the cave floor and ceiling, respectively – carry a record of precipitation because they grow as a result of dripping water.

“If you add the cave data to the data from the glaciers, it gives you a neat way of figuring out whether it was cold temperatures or higher precipitation that drove the glacier growth at the time,” Willenbring said.

The researchers conducted the study in three of Spain’s mountain ranges: the Bejár, Gredos and Guadarrama. The nearby Eagle Cave allowed them to obtain indirect precipitation data.

To ascertain the age of the boulders strewn by the glaciers and thus come up with a date when glaciers were at their greatest extent, Willenbring and colleagues used a technique known as cosmogenic nuclide exposure dating, which measures the chemical residue of supernova explosions. They also used standard radiometric techniques to date stalagmites from Eagle Cave, which gave them information about fluxes in precipitation during the time the glaciers covered the land.

“Previously, people believe the last glacial maximum was somewhere in the range of 19-23,000 years ago,” Willenbring said. “Our chronology indicates that’s more in the range of 25-29,000 years ago in Spain.”

The geologists found that, although temperatures were cool in the range of 19,000-23,000 years ago, conditions were also relatively dry, so the glaciers did not regain the size they had obtained several thousand years earlier, when rain and snowfall totals were higher. They reported their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

Given the revised timeline in this region, Willenbring and colleagues determined that the increased precipitation resulted from changes in the intensity of the sun’s radiation on the Earth, which is based on the planet’s tilt in orbit. Such changes can impact patterns of wind, temperature and storms.

“That probably means there was a southward shift of the North Atlantic Polar Front, which caused storm tracks to move south, too,” Willenbring said. “Also, at this time there was a nice warm source of precipitation, unlike before and after when the ocean was colder.”

Willenbring noted that the new date for the glacier maximum in the Mediterranean region, which is several thousands of years earlier than the date the maximum was reached in central Europe, will help provide more context for creating accurate global climate models.

“It’s important for global climate models to be able to test under what conditions precipitation changes and when sources for that precipitation change,” she said. “That’s particularly true in some of these arid regions, like the American Southwest and the Mediterranean.”

When glaciers were peaking in the Mediterranean around 26,000 years ago, the American Southwest was experiencing similar conditions. Areas that are now desert were moist. Large lakes abounded, including Lake Bonneville, which covered much of modern-day Utah. The state’s Great Salt Lake is what remains.

“Lakes in this area were really high for 5,000-10,000 years, and the cause for that has always been a mystery,” Willenbring said. “By looking at what was happening in the Mediterranean, we might eventually be able to say something about the conditions that led to these lakes in the Southwest, too.”

Study finds earlier peak for Spain’s glaciers

Jane Willenbring (upper right) takes samples to date a boulder in Spain's Bejar mountain range. Her findings helped show that ancient glaciers in the region reached their maximum size several thousands of years earlier than once believed. -  University of Pennsylvania
Jane Willenbring (upper right) takes samples to date a boulder in Spain’s Bejar mountain range. Her findings helped show that ancient glaciers in the region reached their maximum size several thousands of years earlier than once believed. – University of Pennsylvania

The last glacial maximum was a time when Earth’s far northern and far southern latitudes were largely covered in ice sheets and sea levels were low. Over much of the planet, glaciers were at their greatest extent roughly 20,000 years ago. But according to a study headed by University of Pennsylvania geologist Jane Willenbring, that wasn’t true in at least one part of southern Europe. Due to local effects of temperature and precipitation, the local glacial maximum occurred considerably earlier, around 26,000 years ago.

The finding sheds new light on how regional climate has varied over time, providing information that could lead to more-accurate global climate models, which predict what changes Earth will experience in the future.

Willenbring, an assistant professor in Penn’s Department of Earth and Environmental Science in the School of Arts and Sciences, teamed with researchers from Spain, the United Kingdom, China and the United States to pursue this study of the ancient glaciers of southern Europe.

“We wanted to unravel why and when glaciers grow and shrink,” Willenbring said.

In the study site in central Spain, it is relatively straightforward to discern the size of ancient glaciers, because the ice carried and dropped boulders at the margin. Thus a ring of boulders marks the edge of the old glacier.

It is not as easy to determine what caused the glacier to grow, however. Glaciers need both moisture and cold temperatures to expand. Studying the boulders that rim the ancient glaciers alone cannot distinguish these contributions. Caves, however, provide a way to differentiate the two factors. Stalagmites and stalactites – the stony projections that grow from the cave floor and ceiling, respectively – carry a record of precipitation because they grow as a result of dripping water.

“If you add the cave data to the data from the glaciers, it gives you a neat way of figuring out whether it was cold temperatures or higher precipitation that drove the glacier growth at the time,” Willenbring said.

The researchers conducted the study in three of Spain’s mountain ranges: the Bejár, Gredos and Guadarrama. The nearby Eagle Cave allowed them to obtain indirect precipitation data.

To ascertain the age of the boulders strewn by the glaciers and thus come up with a date when glaciers were at their greatest extent, Willenbring and colleagues used a technique known as cosmogenic nuclide exposure dating, which measures the chemical residue of supernova explosions. They also used standard radiometric techniques to date stalagmites from Eagle Cave, which gave them information about fluxes in precipitation during the time the glaciers covered the land.

“Previously, people believe the last glacial maximum was somewhere in the range of 19-23,000 years ago,” Willenbring said. “Our chronology indicates that’s more in the range of 25-29,000 years ago in Spain.”

The geologists found that, although temperatures were cool in the range of 19,000-23,000 years ago, conditions were also relatively dry, so the glaciers did not regain the size they had obtained several thousand years earlier, when rain and snowfall totals were higher. They reported their findings in the journal Scientific Reports.

Given the revised timeline in this region, Willenbring and colleagues determined that the increased precipitation resulted from changes in the intensity of the sun’s radiation on the Earth, which is based on the planet’s tilt in orbit. Such changes can impact patterns of wind, temperature and storms.

“That probably means there was a southward shift of the North Atlantic Polar Front, which caused storm tracks to move south, too,” Willenbring said. “Also, at this time there was a nice warm source of precipitation, unlike before and after when the ocean was colder.”

Willenbring noted that the new date for the glacier maximum in the Mediterranean region, which is several thousands of years earlier than the date the maximum was reached in central Europe, will help provide more context for creating accurate global climate models.

“It’s important for global climate models to be able to test under what conditions precipitation changes and when sources for that precipitation change,” she said. “That’s particularly true in some of these arid regions, like the American Southwest and the Mediterranean.”

When glaciers were peaking in the Mediterranean around 26,000 years ago, the American Southwest was experiencing similar conditions. Areas that are now desert were moist. Large lakes abounded, including Lake Bonneville, which covered much of modern-day Utah. The state’s Great Salt Lake is what remains.

“Lakes in this area were really high for 5,000-10,000 years, and the cause for that has always been a mystery,” Willenbring said. “By looking at what was happening in the Mediterranean, we might eventually be able to say something about the conditions that led to these lakes in the Southwest, too.”