Offshore islands amplify, rather than dissipate, a tsunami’s power

This model shows the impact of coastal islands on a tsunami's height. -  Courtesy of Jose Borrero/eCoast/USC
This model shows the impact of coastal islands on a tsunami’s height. – Courtesy of Jose Borrero/eCoast/USC

A long-held belief that offshore islands protect the mainland from tsunamis turns out to be the exact opposite of the truth, according to a new study.

Common wisdom — from Southern California to the South Pacific — for coastal residents and scientists alike has long been that offshore islands would create a buffer that blocked the power of a tsunami. In fact, computer modeling of tsunamis striking a wide variety of different offshore island geometries yielded no situation in which the mainland behind them fared better.

Instead, islands focused the energy of the tsunami, increasing flooding on the mainland by up to 70 percent.

“This is where many fishing villages are located, behind offshore islands, in the belief that they will be protected from wind waves. Even Southern California residents believe that the Channel Islands and Catalina will protect them,” said Costas Synolakis of the USC Viterbi School of Engineering, a member of the multinational team that conducted the research.

The research was inspired by a field survey of the impact of the 2010 tsunami on the Mentawai Islands off of Sumatra. The survey data showed that villages located in the shadow of small offshore islets suffered some of the strongest tsunami impacts, worse than villages located along open coasts.

Subsequent computer modeling by Jose Borrero, adjunct assistant research professor at the USC Viterbi Tsunami Research Center, showed that the offshore islands had actually contributed to — not diminished — the tsunami’s impact.

Synolakis then teamed up with researchers Emile Contal and Nicolas Vayatis of Ecoles Normales de Cachan in Paris; and Themistoklis S. Stefanakis and Frederic Dias, who both have joint appointments at Ecoles Normales de Cachan and University College Dublin to determine whether that was a one-of-a-kind situation, or the norm.

Their study, of which Dias was the corresponding author, was published in Proceedings of the Royal Society A on Nov. 5.

The team designed a computer model that took into consideration various island slopes, beach slopes, water depths, distance between the island and the beach, and wavelength of the incoming tsunami.

“Even a casual analysis of these factors would have required hundreds of thousands of computations, each of which could take up to half a day,” Synolakis said. “So instead, we used machine learning.”

Machine learning is a mathematical process that makes it easier to identify the maximum values of interdependent processes with multiple parameters by allowing the computer to “learn” from previous results.

The computer starts to understand how various tweaks to the parameters affect the overall outcome and finds the best answer quicker. As such, results that traditionally could have taken hundreds of thousands of models to uncover were found with 200 models.

“This work is applicable to some of our tsunami study sites in New Zealand,” said Borrero, who is producing tsunami hazard maps for regions of the New Zealand coast. “The northeast coast of New Zealand has many small islands offshore, similar to those in Indonesia, and our modeling suggests that this results in areas of enhanced tsunami heights.”

“Substantial public education efforts are needed to help better explain to coastal residents tsunami hazards, and whenever they need to be extra cautious and responsive with evacuations during actual emergencies,” Synolakis said.


The research was funded by EDSP of ENS-Cachan; the Cultural Service of the French Embassy in Dublin; the ERC; SFI; University College Dublin; and the EU FP7 program ASTARTE. The study can be found online at

Rivers flow differently over gravel beds, study finds

River researchers used a specially constructed model to study how water flows over gravel river beds. Illinois postdoctoral researcher Gianluca Blois (left) and professor Jim Best also developed a technique to measure the water flow between the pore spaces in the river bed. -  L. Brian Stauffer
River researchers used a specially constructed model to study how water flows over gravel river beds. Illinois postdoctoral researcher Gianluca Blois (left) and professor Jim Best also developed a technique to measure the water flow between the pore spaces in the river bed. – L. Brian Stauffer

River beds, where flowing water meets silt, sand and gravel, are critical ecological zones. Yet how water flows in a river with a gravel bed is very different from the traditional model of a sandy river bed, according to a new study that compares their fluid dynamics.

The findings establish new parameters for river modeling that better represent reality, with implications for field researchers and water resource managers.

“The shallow zones where water in rivers interacts with the subsurface are critical environmentally, and how we have modeled those in the past may be radically different from reality,” said Jim Best, a professor of geology, geography and geographic information science at the University of Illinois. “If you’re a river engineer or a geomorphologist or a freshwater biologist, predicting where and when sediment transport is going to occur is very important. This study provides us with a very different set of conditions to look at those environments and potentially manage them.”

Best and postdoctoral researcher Gianluca Blois led the study at the U. of I., in collaboration with colleagues in the United Kingdom. The team published its findings in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

The researchers used a specially constructed flume in the Ven Te Chow Hydrosystems Laboratory at Illinois to experimentally compare scenarios ranging from the traditional model of an impermeable river bottom to a completely permeable river bed – a collection of spheres that simulate gravel.

The researchers used a technique called particle image velocimetry (PIV), a widely used method for quantifying how water flows over a model river bed, pioneered at the U. of I. in the 1980s. Best and Blois developed a method to use PIV endoscopically to study, for the first time, fluid flow within the small spaces between the gravel. This allowed them to quantify flow within the river bed and link it to the stream flow above.

They found that, in the scenario that simulates a gravel bed, the patterns of flow velocity above the bed and the distribution of forces on the river bed were dramatically different from the models on which all previous work has been based. Their experimental scenarios also disproved one popular theory that explained the difference between classic models and field observations for the formation of bed topography, such as dunes.

“Bedforms formed in fine sediments are known to be substantially different from those formed in gravel beds, but we just didn’t know why,” Blois said. “People before us suggested that those differences were due to the roughness of the grains. But we introduced the bed permeability, just like real rivers. This, with our new measurement technique, allowed us to demonstrate that most of the stress variation is actually coming from fluid emerging from the permeable bed, rather than roughness.”

The maps of water flow that the experiments produced could lead to better predictive models, so that researchers can more accurately predict and study how nutrients and pollutants travel and accumulate in rivers. These new models also could provide insight into the growth and behavior of organisms that thrive in the narrow zone where river flow meets the river bed.

“For example, when salmon spawn in gravel-bed rivers, they basically make a depression in the gravel, into which they lay their eggs,” Best said. “By doing that, not only do they protect the eggs, but they create a bump in the sediment that creates a pressure distribution that would keep fine grains from going into the bed, which would be detrimental to the eggs. It’s fascinating that fish actually take advantage of these flow dynamics.”

The researchers are working with collaborators around the world to study how permeability affects turbulence above the bed, how this affects the organisms that grow in the pore spaces, and how tiny particles and dissolved substances accumulate in porous riverbeds.

“It’s going to change the way we conceptualize these systems and model them,” Blois said. “We’re trying to raise awareness of the fact that we are now able to measure the complex flow dynamics in these challenging environments, and that’s going to open up a new paradigm for river research.”

International team maps nearly 200,000 global glaciers in quest for sea rise answers

CU-Boulder Professor Tad Pfeffer, shown here on Alaska's Columbia Glacier, is part of a team that has mapped nearly 200,000 individual glaciers around the world as part of an effort to track ongoing contributions to global sea rise as the planet heats up. -  University of Colorado
CU-Boulder Professor Tad Pfeffer, shown here on Alaska’s Columbia Glacier, is part of a team that has mapped nearly 200,000 individual glaciers around the world as part of an effort to track ongoing contributions to global sea rise as the planet heats up. – University of Colorado

An international team led by glaciologists from the University of Colorado Boulder and Trent University in Ontario, Canada has completed the first mapping of virtually all of the world’s glaciers — including their locations and sizes — allowing for calculations of their volumes and ongoing contributions to global sea rise as the world warms.

The team mapped and catalogued some 198,000 glaciers around the world as part of the massive Randolph Glacier Inventory, or RGI, to better understand rising seas over the coming decades as anthropogenic greenhouse gases heat the planet. Led by CU-Boulder Professor Tad Pfeffer and Trent University Professor Graham Cogley, the team included 74 scientists from 18 countries, most working on an unpaid, volunteer basis.

The project was undertaken in large part to provide the best information possible for the recently released Fifth Assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. While the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets are both losing mass, it is the smaller glaciers that are contributing the most to rising seas now and that will continue to do so into the next century, said Pfeffer, a lead author on the new IPCC sea rise chapter and fellow at CU-Boulder’s Institute of Arctic and Alpine Research.

“I don’t think anyone could make meaningful progress on projecting glacier changes if the Randolph inventory was not available,” said Pfeffer, the first author on the RGI paper published online today in the Journal of Glaciology. Pfeffer said while funding for mountain glacier research has almost completely dried up in the United States in recent years with the exception of grants from NASA, there has been continuing funding by a number of European groups.

Since the world’s glaciers are expected to shrink drastically in the next century as the temperatures rise, the new RGI — named after one of the group’s meeting places in New Hampshire — is critical, said Pfeffer. In the RGI each individual glacier is represented by an accurate, computerized outline, making forecasts of glacier-climate interactions more precise.

“This means that people can now do research that they simply could not do before,” said Cogley, the corresponding author on the new Journal of Glaciology paper. “It’s now possible to conduct much more robust modeling for what might happen to these glaciers in the future.”

As part of the RGI effort, the team mapped intricate glacier complexes in places like Alaska, Patagonia, central Asia and the Himalayas, as well as the peripheral glaciers surrounding the two great ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, said Pfeffer. “In order to model these glaciers, we have to know their individual characteristics, not simply an average or aggregate picture. That was one of the most difficult parts of the project.”

The team used satellite images and maps to outline the area and location of each glacier. The researchers can combine that information with a digital elevation model, then use a technique known as “power law scaling” to determine volumes of various collections of glaciers.

In addition to impacting global sea rise, the melting of the world’s glaciers over the next 100 years will severely affect regional water resources for uses like irrigation and hydropower, said Pfeffer. The melting also has implications for natural hazards like “glacier outburst” floods that may occur as the glaciers shrink, he said.

The total extent of glaciers in the RGI is roughly 280,000 square miles or 727,000 square kilometers — an area slightly larger than Texas or about the size of Germany, Denmark and Poland combined. The team estimated that the corresponding total volume of sea rise collectively held by the glaciers is 14 to 18 inches, or 350 to 470 millimeters.

The new estimates are less than some previous estimates, and in total they are less than 1 percent of the amount of water stored in the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which collectively contain slightly more than 200 feet, or 63 meters, of sea rise.

“A lot of people think that the contribution of glaciers to sea rise is insignificant when compared with the big ice sheets,” said Pfeffer, also a professor in CU-Boulder’s civil, environmental and architectural engineering department. “But in the first several decades of the present century it is going to be this glacier reservoir that will be the primary contributor to sea rise. The real concern for city planners and coastal engineers will be in the coming decades, because 2100 is pretty far off to have to make meaningful decisions.”

Part of the RGI was based on the Global Land Ice Measurements from Space Initiative, or GLIMS, which involved more than 60 institutions from around the world and which contributed the baseline dataset for the RGI. Another important research data tool for the RGI was the European-funded program “Ice2Sea,” which brings together scientific and operational expertise from 24 leading institutions across Europe and beyond.

The GLIMS glacier database and website are maintained by CU-Boulder’s National Snow and Ice Data Center, or NSIDC. The GLIMS research team at NSIDC includes principal investigator Richard Armstrong, technical lead Bruce Raup and remote-sensing specialist Siri Jodha Singh Khalsa.

NSIDC is part of the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences, or CIRES, a joint venture between CU-Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

A satellite view of volcanoes finds the link between ground deformation and eruption

ESA’s Sentinel satellite, due for launch on April 3rd, should allow scientists to test this link in greater detail and eventually develop a forecast system for all volcanoes, including those that are remote and inaccessible.

Volcano deformation and, in particular, uplift are often considered to be caused by magma moving or pressurizing underground. Magma rising towards the surface could be a sign of an imminent eruption. On the other hand, many other factors influence volcano deformation and, even if magma is rising, it may stop short, rather than erupting.

Dr Juliet Biggs and colleagues in the School of Earth Sciences, with collaborators from Cornell, Oxford and Southern Methodist University, looked at the archive of satellite data covering over 500 volcanoes worldwide, many of which have been systematically observed for over 18 years. Satellite radar (InSAR) can provide high-resolution maps of deformation, allowing the detection of unrest at many volcanoes that might otherwise go unrecognised. Such satellite data is often the only source of information for remote or inaccessible volcanoes.

The researchers applied statistical methods more traditionally used for medical diagnostic testing and found that many deforming volcanoes also erupted (46 per cent). Together with the very high proportion of non-deforming volcanoes that did not erupt (94 per cent), these jointly represent a strong indicator of a volcano’s long-term eruptive potential.

Dr Biggs said: “The findings suggest that satellite radar is the perfect tool to identify volcanic unrest on a regional or global scale and target ground-based monitoring.”

The work was co-funded by the UK Centre for Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes, Volcanoes and Tectonics (COMET) and STREVA, a research consortium aimed at finding ways to reduce the negative consequences of volcanic activity on people and their assets.

“Improving how we anticipate activity using new technology such as this is an important first step in doing better at forecasting and preparing for volcanic eruptions,” said STREVA Principal Investigator, Dr Jenni Barclay.

Co-author Professor Willy Aspinall added: “Global studies of volcano deformation using satellite data will increasingly play a part in assessing eruption potential at more and more volcanoes, especially in regions with short historical records or limited conventional monitoring.”

However, many factors and processes, some observable, but others not, influence deformation to a greater or lesser extent. These include the type of rock that forms the volcano, its tectonic characteristics and the supply rate and storage depth of magma beneath it. Thus, deformation can have different implications for different types of volcanoes. For volcanoes with short eruption cycles, the satellite record typically spans episodes that include both deformation and eruption, resulting in a high correlation between the two. For volcanoes with long eruption cycles, the satellite record tends to capture either deformation or eruption but rarely both.

In the past, radar images of the majority of the world’s volcanoes were only acquired a few times a year, but seismological data indicate that the duration of unrest before an eruption might be as short as only a few days.

Dr Biggs said: “This study demonstrates what can be achieved with global satellite coverage even with limited acquisitions, so we are looking forward to the step-change in data quantity planned for the next generation of satellites.”

The European Space Agency is planning to launch its next radar mission, Sentinel-1 in early April. This mission is designed for global monitoring and will collect images every six to twelve days. Using this, scientists should be able to test the causal and temporal relationship with deformation on much shorter timescales.

Professor Tim Wright, Director of COMET, added: “This study is particularly exciting because Sentinel-1 will soon give us systematic observations of the ups and downs of every volcano on the planet. For many places, particularly in developing countries, these data could provide the only warning of an impending eruption.”

Ocean crust could store many centuries of industrial CO2

Researchers from the University of Southampton have identified regions beneath the oceans where the igneous rocks of the upper ocean crust could safely store very large volumes of carbon dioxide.

The burning of fossil fuels such as coal, oil, and natural gas has led to dramatically increasing concentrations of CO2 in the atmosphere causing climate change and ocean acidification. Although technologies are being developed to capture CO2 at major sources such as power stations, this will only avoid further warming if that CO2 is then safely locked away from the atmosphere for centuries.

PhD student Chiara Marieni, who is based at the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, investigated the physical properties of CO2 to develop global maps of the ocean floor to estimate where CO2 can be safely stored.

At high pressures and low temperatures, such as those in the deep oceans, CO2 occurs as a liquid that is denser than seawater. By estimating temperatures in the upper ocean crust, Chiara and her colleagues identified regions where it may be possible to stably store large volumes of CO2 in the basalts. These fractured rocks have high proportions of open space, and over time may also react with the CO2 so that it is locked into solid calcium carbonate, permanently preventing its release into the oceans or atmosphere. As a precaution, Chiara refined her locations to areas that have the additional protection of thick blankets of impermeable sediments to prevent gas escape.

They identified five potential regions in off-shore Australia, Japan, Siberia, South Africa and Bermuda, ranging in size from ½ million square kilometres to almost four million square kilometres.

Postgraduate researcher Chiara says: “We have found regions that have the potential to store decades to hundreds of years of industrial carbon dioxide emissions although the largest regions are far off shore. However, further work is needed in these regions to accurately measure local sediment conditions and sample the basalt beneath before this potential can be confirmed.”

The new work, which is published in Geophysical Research Letters, shows that previous studies, which concentrated on the effect of pressure to liquefy the CO2 but ignored temperature, have pointed to the wrong locations, where high temperatures mean that the CO2 will have a low density, and thus be more likely to escape.

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

Gold mining ravages Peru

The Carnegie Airborne Observatory flies over the Madre De Dios region of Peru, where vast deforested and polluted areas result from gold mining. -  Image courtesy Carnegie Airborne Observatory
The Carnegie Airborne Observatory flies over the Madre De Dios region of Peru, where vast deforested and polluted areas result from gold mining. – Image courtesy Carnegie Airborne Observatory

For the first time, researchers have been able to map the true extent of gold mining in the biologically diverse region of Madre De Dios in the Peruvian Amazon. The team combined field surveys with airborne mapping and high-resolution satellite monitoring to show that the geographic extent of mining has increased 400% from 1999 to 2012 and that the average annual rate of forest loss has tripled since the Great Recession of 2008. Until this study, thousands of small, clandestine mines that have boomed since the economic crisis have gone unmonitored. The research is published in the online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences the week of October 28, 2013.

The team, led by Carnegie’s Greg Asner in close collaboration with officials from the Peruvian Ministry of Environment, used the Carnegie Landsat Analysis System-lite (CLASlite) to detect and map both large and small mining operations. CLASlite differs from other satellite mapping methods. It uses algorithms to detect changes to the forest in areas as small as 10 square meters, about 100 square feet, allowing scientists to find small-scale disturbances that cannot be detected by traditional satellite methods.

The team corroborated the satellite results with on-ground field surveys and Carnegie Airborne Observatory (CAO) data. The CAO uses Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR), a technology that sweeps laser light across the vegetation canopy to image it in 3-D. It can determine the location of single standing trees at 3.5 feet (1.1 meter) resolution. This level of detail was used to assess how well CLASlite determined forest conditions in the mining areas. The CAO data were also used to evaluate the accuracy of the CLASlite maps along the edges of large mines, as well as the inaccessible small mines that are set back from roads and rivers to avoid detection. The field and CAO data confirmed up to 94% of the CLASlite mine detections.

Lead author Asner commented: “Our results reveal far more rainforest damage than previously reported by the government, NGOs, or other researchers. In all, we found that the rate of forest loss from gold mining accelerated from 5,350 acres (2,166 hectares) per year before 2008 to15,180 acres (6,145 hectares) each year after the 2008 global financial crisis that rocketed gold prices.”

In addition to wreaking direct havoc on tropical forests, gold mining releases sediment into rivers, with severe effects on aquatic life. Other recent work has shown that Perú’s gold mining has contributed to widespread mercury pollution affecting the entire food chain, including the food ingested by people throughout the region. Miners also hunt wild game, depleting the rainforest fauna around mining areas, and disrupting the ecological balance for centuries to come.

Co-author Ernesto Raez Luna, Senior Advisor to the Minister, Peruvian Ministry of the Environment, remarked: “Obtaining good information on illegal gold mining, to guide sound policy and enforcement decisions, has been particularly difficult so far. Finally, we have very detailed and accurate data that we can turn into government action. We are using this study to warn Peruvians on the terrible impact of illegal mining in one of the most important enclaves of biodiversity in the world, a place that we have vowed, as a nation, to protect for all humanity. Nobody should buy one gram of this jungle gold. The mining must be stopped.”

As of 2012, small illicit mines accounted for more than half of all mining operations in the region. Large mines of previous focus are heavy polluters but are taking on a subordinate role to thousands of small mines in degrading the tropical forest throughout the region. This trend highlights the importance of using this newer, high-resolution monitoring system for keeping tabs on this growing cause of forest loss.

Asner emphasized: “The gold rush in Madre de Dios, Perú, exceeds the combined effects of all other causes of forest loss in the region, including from logging, ranching and agriculture. This is really important because we’re talking about a global biodiversity hotspot. The region’s incredible flora and fauna is being lost to gold fever. “

Researchers turn to technology to discover a novel way of mapping landscapes

University of Cincinnati researchers are blending technology with tradition, as they discover new and improved methods for mapping landscapes. The research is newly published in the Journal of Applied Geography (Vol. 45, December 2013) by UC authors Jacek Niesterowicz, a doctoral student in the geography department, and Professor Tomasz Stepinski, the Thomas Jefferson Chair of Space Exploration in the McMicken College of Arts and Sciences (A&S).

The researchers say the analysis is the first to use a technology from a field of machine vision to build a new map of landscape types – a generalization of a popular land cover/land use map. Whereas land cover/land use pertains to physical material at, or utilization of, the local piece of Earth’s surface, a landscape type pertains to a pattern or a mosaic of different land covers over a larger neighborhood.

Machine vision is a subfield of computer science devoted to analyzing and understanding the content of images. A role of a machine vision algorithm is to “see” and interpret images as close to human vision interpretation as possible. Previous uses of the technology have focused on medicine, industry and government, ranging from robotics to face detection.

The UC research focused on a very large map of land cover/land use, called the National Land Cover Database 2006, developed by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Niesterowicz says he developed and applied machine vision-based algorithms to map landscape types in an area of northern Georgia that he selected because of the diverse patterns of land cover. The result allowed the researchers to discover and differentiate 15 distinctive landscape types, including separating forests by their domination of different plant species.

“Before now, people would do this mapping by hand, but if you had 10 maps drawn by 10 people, they would all be different,” says Stepinski.

Niesterowicz says the information uncovered by auto-mapping of landscape types would be useful for a number of fields, ranging from geographic research to land management, urban planning and conservation.

“The good thing about this method is that it doesn’t need to be restricted to land cover or other physical variables – it can be applied as well to socio-economic data, such as U.S. Census data, for example,” says Niesterowicz.

“It’s an entirely new way to conduct geographic research,” says Stepinski.

“By leveraging technology developed in the field of computer science, it’s possible to make geography searchable by content. Using this technique, for example, we can quickly discover (using Web-based applications on our website) that farms in Minnesota are on average larger than farms in Ohio, and ask why that is.”

The researchers say future research will involve using the method to identify characteristic landscape types (from waterways to forests to regions influenced by human habitation) over the entire United States.

Stepinski adds that longer-term applications could involve comparisons of landscape types of other countries with those of the United States and to identify characteristic patterns of different geographical entities, such as terrain, or human patterns including socioeconomics and race.

California seafloor mapping reveals hidden treasures

This is a kelp greenling fish swimming above a seafloor of mixed gravel, cobble and rock outcrop with scattered shell. Fish is approx. 20 cm (8 inches) long. Image acquired 1 km (0.62 miles) offshore Half Moon Bay, Calif., at a depth of 14 meters (46 ft). Also in the image are encrusting sponges, red algae (seaweed), and orange cup corals. -  US Geological Survey
This is a kelp greenling fish swimming above a seafloor of mixed gravel, cobble and rock outcrop with scattered shell. Fish is approx. 20 cm (8 inches) long. Image acquired 1 km (0.62 miles) offshore Half Moon Bay, Calif., at a depth of 14 meters (46 ft). Also in the image are encrusting sponges, red algae (seaweed), and orange cup corals. – US Geological Survey

Science and technology have peeled back a veil of water just offshore of California, revealing the hidden seafloor in unprecedented detail. New imagery, specialized undersea maps, and a wealth of data from along the California coast are now available. Three new products in an ongoing series were released today by the U.S. Geological Survey – a map set for the area offshore of Carpinteria, a catalog of data layers for geographic information systems, and a collection of videos and photos of the seafloor in state waters along the entire California coast.

“A program of this vast scope can’t be accomplished by any one organization. By working with other government agencies, universities, and private industry the USGS could fully leverage all its resources,” said USGS Pacific Region Director Mark Sogge. “Each organization brings to the table a unique and complementary set of resources, skills, and know-how.”

The USGS is a key partner in the California Seafloor Mapping Program, a large, unique, and historically ambitious collaboration between state and federal agencies, academia, and the private sector to create a comprehensive base-map series for all of California’s ocean waters. Scientists are collecting sonar data, video and photographic imagery, seismic surveys, and bottom-sediment data to create a series of maps of seafloor bathymetry, habitats, geology, and more, in order to inform coastal managers and planners, government entities, and researchers. With the new maps, decision makers and elected officials can better design and monitor marine reserves, evaluate ocean energy potential, understand ecosystem dynamics, recognize earthquake and tsunami hazards, regulate offshore development, and improve maritime safety.

“The Ocean Protection Council recognized early on that seafloor habitats and geology were a fundamental data gap in ocean management,” said California’s Secretary for Natural Resources and Ocean Protection Council Chair John Laird. “After an impressive effort by many partners to collect and interpret the data, the maps being produced now are providing pioneering science that’s changing the way we manage our oceans.”

“Our collaboration with the state and more than 15 other partners is critical to the success of this program. We’ve come together to make the maps, and then to use them. We all like to say that you can’t manage it, monitor it, or model it if you don’t know what the ‘it’ is, and our seafloor mapping gives that important ‘it’ to the entire coastal management and research community,” said the USGS’ lead researcher on this project, Sam Johnson.

USGS California Seafloor Mapping Program Map Series

The heart of the USGS California Seafloor Mapping Program effort is a series of map sets. To date, three sets have been published, including the most recent one released today covering the area “Offshore of Carpinteria,” USGS Scientific Investigations Map 3261. Each of the map sets includes 10 or more sheets, illustrating different features of the seafloor, including geology, bathymetry, habitats, and geology within the three-nautical-mile limit of California’s state waters. The maps are created through the collection, integration, interpretation, and visualization of swath sonar data, acoustic backscatter, seafloor video, seafloor photography, high-resolution seismic-reflection profiles, and bottom-sediment sampling data. Fourteen other map sets are being formatted for publication; the California State Waters Map Series is planned to comprise 83 such seafloor map sets spanning the entire coast of California.

USGS California Seafloor Mapping Program Data Catalog

Underlying the series of published seafloor map sets are large geospatial digital files, including bathymetry, acoustic backscatter, offshore geology and geomorphology, faults, folds, potential marine habitats, seafloor character, sediment thickness, visual observations of bottom habitat from video, and more. These data sets are now available through a new California State Waters Map Series Data Catalog for users to create their own maps or engage in further investigations of the seafloor. The catalog, USGS Data Series 781, provides all GIS data layers associated with the map sets published by the California Seafloor Mapping Program. Data will be continually added to the data series catalog as new seafloor map sets are published. All data files can be viewed and downloaded at no charge. As the California Seafloor Mapping Program continues to produce new maps, they -and all the background data- will be made available online.

USGS California Seafloor Mapping Program Video & Photo Portal

The unique set of seafloor images (video and still photography) collected by the USGS from the U.S.-Mexico border to the Oregon state line is now available via a new California Seafloor Mapping Program Video and Photograph Portal. More than 500 hours of video and 87,000 photographs were collected and are now posted in the online portal for viewing. Scientists are using these data to ground-truth their interpretations of sonar data, to provide a framework for understanding seafloor ecosystems, and to create maps of seafloor materials and habitats. The video and photo portal is based on an interactive map, allowing users to zoom into a particular area, and see the imagery available. The video and still photographs of the same locations are displayed simultaneously, just as they were acquired along the track-line.

Study reveals ancient jigsaw puzzle of past supercontinent

A new study published today in the journal Gondwana Research, has revealed the past position of the Australian, Antarctic and Indian tectonic plates, demonstrating how they formed the supercontinent Gondwana 165 million years ago.

Researchers from Royal Holloway University, The Australian National University and Geoscience Australia, have helped clear up previous uncertainties on how the plates evolved and where they should be positioned when drawing up a picture of the past.

Dr Lloyd White from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway University said: “The Earth’s tectonic plates move around through time. As these movements occur over many millions of years, it has previously been difficult to produce accurate maps of where the continents were in the past.

“We used a computer program to move geological maps of Australia, India and Antarctica back through time and built a ‘jigsaw puzzle’ of the supercontinent Gondwana. During the process, we found that many existing studies had positioned the plates in the wrong place because the geological units did not align on each plate.”

The researchers adopted an old technique used by people who discovered the theories of continental drift and plate tectonics, but which had largely been ignored by many modern scientists.

“It was a simple technique, matching the geological boundaries on each plate. The geological units formed before the continents broke apart, so we used their position to put this ancient jigsaw puzzle back together again,” Dr White added.

“It is important that we know where the plates existed many millions of years ago, and how they broke apart, as the regions where plates break are often where we find major oil and gas deposits, such as those that are found along Australia’s southern margin.”