Research links soil mineral surfaces to key atmospheric processes

Pictured are, from left, are David Bish, Melissa Donaldson and Jonathan Raff. -  Indiana University
Pictured are, from left, are David Bish, Melissa Donaldson and Jonathan Raff. – Indiana University

Research by Indiana University scientists finds that soil may be a significant and underappreciated source of nitrous acid, a chemical that plays a pivotal role in atmospheric processes such as the formation of smog and determining the lifetime of greenhouse gases.

The study shows for the first time that the surface acidity of common minerals found in soil determines whether the gas nitrous acid will be released into the atmosphere. The finding could contribute to improved models for understanding and controlling air pollution, a significant public health concern.

“We find that the surfaces of minerals in the soil can be much more acidic than the overall pH of the soil would suggest,” said Jonathan Raff, assistant professor in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs and Department of Chemistry. “It’s the acidity of the soil minerals that acts as a knob or a control lever, and that determines whether nitrous acid outgasses from soil or remains as nitrite.”

The article, “Soil surface acidity plays a determining role in the atmospheric-terrestrial exchange of nitrous acid,” will be published this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Melissa A. Donaldson, a Ph.D. student in the School of Public and Environmental Affairs, is the lead author. Co-authors are Raff and David L. Bish, the Haydn Murray Chair of Applied Clay Mineralogy in the Department of Geological Sciences.

Nitrous acid, or HONO, plays a key role in regulating atmospheric processes. Sunlight causes it to break down into nitric oxide and the hydroxyl radical, OH. The latter controls the atmospheric lifetime of gases important to air quality and climate change and initiates the chemistry leading to the formation of ground-level ozone, a primary component of smog.

Scientists have known about the nitrous acid’s role in air pollution for 40 years, but they haven’t fully understood how it is produced and destroyed or how it interacts with other substances, because HONO is unstable and difficult to measure.

“Only in the last 10 years have we had the technology to study nitrous acid under environmentally relevant conditions,” Raff said.

Recent studies have shown nitrous acid to be emitted from soil in many locations. But this was unexpected because, according to basic chemistry, the reactions that release nitrous acid should take place only in extremely acidic soils, typically found in rain forests or the taiga of North America and Eurasia.

The standard method to determine the acidity of soil is to mix bulk soil with water and measure the overall pH. But the IU researchers show that the crucial factor is not overall pH but the acidity at the surface of soil minerals, especially iron oxides and aluminum oxides. At the molecular level, the water adsorbed directly to these minerals is unusually acidic and facilitates the conversion of nitrite in the soil to nitrous acid, which then volatilizes.

“With the traditional approach of calculating soil pH, we were severely underestimating nitrous acid emissions from soil,” Raff said. “I think the source is going to turn out to be more important than was previously imagined.”

The research was carried out using soil from a farm field near Columbus, Ind. But aluminum and iron oxides are ubiquitous in soil, and the researchers say the results suggest that about 70 percent of Earth’s soils could be sources of nitrous acid.

Ultimately, the research will contribute to a better understanding of how nitrous acid is produced and how it affects atmospheric processes. That in turn will improve the computer models used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and other regulatory agencies to control air pollution, which the World Health Organization estimates contributes to 7 million premature deaths annually.

“With improved models, policymakers can make better judgments about the costs and benefits of regulations,” Raff said. “If we don’t get the chemistry right, we’re not going to get the right answers to our policy questions regarding air pollution.”

Technology-dependent emissions of gas extraction in the US

The KIT measurement instrument on board of a minivan directly measures atmospheric emissions on site with a high temporal resolution. -  Photo: F. Geiger/KIT
The KIT measurement instrument on board of a minivan directly measures atmospheric emissions on site with a high temporal resolution. – Photo: F. Geiger/KIT

Not all boreholes are the same. Scientists of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) used mobile measurement equipment to analyze gaseous compounds emitted by the extraction of oil and natural gas in the USA. For the first time, organic pollutants emitted during a fracking process were measured at a high temporal resolution. The highest values measured exceeded typical mean values in urban air by a factor of one thousand, as was reported in ACP journal. (DOI 10.5194/acp-14-10977-2014)

Emission of trace gases by oil and gas fields was studied by the KIT researchers in the USA (Utah and Colorado) together with US institutes. Background concentrations and the waste gas plumes of single extraction plants and fracking facilities were analyzed. The air quality measurements of several weeks duration took place under the “Uintah Basin Winter Ozone Study” coordinated by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

The KIT measurements focused on health-damaging aromatic hydrocarbons in air, such as carcinogenic benzene. Maximum concentrations were determined in the waste gas plumes of boreholes. Some extraction plants emitted up to about a hundred times more benzene than others. The highest values of some milligrams of benzene per cubic meter air were measured downstream of an open fracking facility, where returning drilling fluid is stored in open tanks and basins. Much better results were reached by oil and gas extraction plants and plants with closed production processes. In Germany, benzene concentration at the workplace is subject to strict limits: The Federal Emission Control Ordinance gives an annual benzene limit of five micrograms per cubic meter for the protection of human health, which is smaller than the values now measured at the open fracking facility in the US by a factor of about one thousand. The researchers published the results measured in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics ACP.

“Characteristic emissions of trace gases are encountered everywhere. These are symptomatic of gas and gas extraction. But the values measured for different technologies differ considerably,” Felix Geiger of the Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research (IMK) of KIT explains. He is one of the first authors of the study. By means of closed collection tanks and so-called vapor capture systems, for instance, the gases released during operation can be collected and reduced significantly.

“The gas fields in the sparsely populated areas of North America are a good showcase for estimating the range of impacts of different extraction and fracking technologies,” explains Professor Johannes Orphal, Head of IMK. “In the densely populated Germany, framework conditions are much stricter and much more attention is paid to reducing and monitoring emissions.”

Fracking is increasingly discussed as a technology to extract fossil resources from unconventional deposits. Hydraulic breaking of suitable shale stone layers opens up the fossil fuels stored there and makes them accessible for economically efficient use. For this purpose, boreholes are drilled into these rock formations. Then, they are subjected to high pressure using large amounts of water and auxiliary materials, such as sand, cement, and chemicals. The oil or gas can flow to the surface through the opened microstructures in the rock. Typically, the return flow of the aqueous fracking liquid with the dissolved oil and gas constituents to the surface lasts several days until the production phase proper of purer oil or natural gas. This return flow is collected and then reused until it finally has to be disposed of. Air pollution mainly depends on the treatment of this return flow at the extraction plant. In this respect, currently practiced fracking technologies differ considerably. For the first time now, the resulting local atmospheric emissions were studied at a high temporary resolution. Based on the results, emissions can be assigned directly to the different plant sections of an extraction plant. For measurement, the newly developed, compact, and highly sensitive instrument, a so-called proton transfer reaction mass spectrometer (PTR-MS), of KIT was installed on board of a minivan and driven closer to the different extraction points, the distances being a few tens of meters. In this way, the waste gas plumes of individual extraction sources and fracking processes were studied in detail.

Warneke, C., Geiger, F., Edwards, P. M., Dube, W., Pétron, G., Kofler, J., Zahn, A., Brown, S. S., Graus, M., Gilman, J. B., Lerner, B. M., Peischl, J., Ryerson, T. B., de Gouw, J. A., and Roberts, J. M.: Volatile organic compound emissions from the oil and natural gas industry in the Uintah Basin, Utah: oil and gas well pad emissions compared to ambient air composition, Atmos. Chem. Phys., 14, 10977-10988, doi:10.5194/acp-14-10977-2014, 2014.

Massive geographic change may have triggered explosion of animal life

A new analysis from The University of Texas at Austin's Institute for Geophysics suggests a deep oceanic gateway, shown in blue, developed between the Pacific and Iapetus oceans immediately before the Cambrian sea level rise and explosion of life in the fossil record, isolating Laurentia from the supercontinent Gondwanaland. -  Ian Dalziel
A new analysis from The University of Texas at Austin’s Institute for Geophysics suggests a deep oceanic gateway, shown in blue, developed between the Pacific and Iapetus oceans immediately before the Cambrian sea level rise and explosion of life in the fossil record, isolating Laurentia from the supercontinent Gondwanaland. – Ian Dalziel

A new analysis of geologic history may help solve the riddle of the “Cambrian explosion,” the rapid diversification of animal life in the fossil record 530 million years ago that has puzzled scientists since the time of Charles Darwin.

A paper by Ian Dalziel of The University of Texas at Austin’s Jackson School of Geosciences, published in the November issue of Geology, a journal of the Geological Society of America, suggests a major tectonic event may have triggered the rise in sea level and other environmental changes that accompanied the apparent burst of life.

The Cambrian explosion is one of the most significant events in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history. The surge of evolution led to the sudden appearance of almost all modern animal groups. Fossils from the Cambrian explosion document the rapid evolution of life on Earth, but its cause has been a mystery.

The sudden burst of new life is also called “Darwin’s dilemma” because it appears to contradict Charles Darwin’s hypothesis of gradual evolution by natural selection.

“At the boundary between the Precambrian and Cambrian periods, something big happened tectonically that triggered the spreading of shallow ocean water across the continents, which is clearly tied in time and space to the sudden explosion of multicellular, hard-shelled life on the planet,” said Dalziel, a research professor at the Institute for Geophysics and a professor in the Department of Geological Sciences.

Beyond the sea level rise itself, the ancient geologic and geographic changes probably led to a buildup of oxygen in the atmosphere and a change in ocean chemistry, allowing more complex life-forms to evolve, he said.

The paper is the first to integrate geological evidence from five present-day continents — North America, South America, Africa, Australia and Antarctica — in addressing paleogeography at that critical time.

Dalziel proposes that present-day North America was still attached to the southern continents until sometime into the Cambrian period. Current reconstructions of the globe’s geography during the early Cambrian show the ancient continent of Laurentia — the ancestral core of North America — as already having separated from the supercontinent Gondwanaland.

In contrast, Dalziel suggests the development of a deep oceanic gateway between the Pacific and Iapetus (ancestral Atlantic) oceans isolated Laurentia in the early Cambrian, a geographic makeover that immediately preceded the global sea level rise and apparent explosion of life.

“The reason people didn’t make this connection before was because they hadn’t looked at all the rock records on the different present-day continents,” he said.

The rock record in Antarctica, for example, comes from the very remote Ellsworth Mountains.

“People have wondered for a long time what rifted off there, and I think it was probably North America, opening up this deep seaway,” Dalziel said. “It appears ancient North America was initially attached to Antarctica and part of South America, not to Europe and Africa, as has been widely believed.”

Although the new analysis adds to evidence suggesting a massive tectonic shift caused the seas to rise more than half a billion years ago, Dalziel said more research is needed to determine whether this new chain of paleogeographic events can truly explain the sudden rise of multicellular life in the fossil record.

“I’m not claiming this is the ultimate explanation of the Cambrian explosion,” Dalziel said. “But it may help to explain what was happening at that time.”

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To read the paper go to http://geology.gsapubs.org/content/early/2014/09/25/G35886.1.abstract

NASA study finds 1934 had worst drought of last thousand years

A new study using a reconstruction of North American drought history over the last 1,000 years found that the drought of 1934 was the driest and most widespread of the last millennium.

Using a tree-ring-based drought record from the years 1000 to 2005 and modern records, scientists from NASA and Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory found the 1934 drought was 30 percent more severe than the runner-up drought (in 1580) and extended across 71.6 percent of western North America. For comparison, the average extent of the 2012 drought was 59.7 percent.

“It was the worst by a large margin, falling pretty far outside the normal range of variability that we see in the record,” said climate scientist Ben Cook at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies in New York. Cook is lead author of the study, which will publish in the Oct. 17 edition of Geophysical Research Letters.

Two sets of conditions led to the severity and extent of the 1934 drought. First, a high-pressure system in winter sat over the west coast of the United States and turned away wet weather – a pattern similar to that which occurred in the winter of 2013-14. Second, the spring of 1934 saw dust storms, caused by poor land management practices, suppress rainfall.

“In combination then, these two different phenomena managed to bring almost the entire nation into a drought at that time,” said co-author Richard Seager, professor at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in New York. “The fact that it was the worst of the millennium was probably in part because of the human role.”

According to the recent Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, climate change is likely to make droughts in North America worse, and the southwest in particular is expected to become significantly drier as are summers in the central plains. Looking back one thousand years in time is one way to get a handle on the natural variability of droughts so that scientists can tease out anthropogenic effects – such as the dust storms of 1934.

“We want to understand droughts of the past to understand to what extent climate change might make it more or less likely that those events occur in the future,” Cook said.

The abnormal high-pressure system is one lesson from the past that informs scientists’ understanding of the current severe drought in California and the western United States.

“What you saw during this last winter and during 1934, because of this high pressure in the atmosphere, is that all the wintertime storms that would normally come into places like California instead got steered much, much farther north,” Cook said. “It’s these wintertime storms that provide most of the moisture in California. So without getting that rainfall it led to a pretty severe drought.”

This type of high-pressure system is part of normal variation in the atmosphere, and whether or not it will appear in a given year is difficult to predict in computer models of the climate. Models are more attuned to droughts caused by La Niña’s colder sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean, which likely triggered the multi-year Dust Bowl drought throughout the 1930s. In a normal La Niña year, the Pacific Northwest receives more rain than usual and the southwestern states typically dry out.

But a comparison of weather data to models looking at La Niña effects showed that the rain-blocking high-pressure system in the winter of 1933-34 overrode the effects of La Niña for the western states. This dried out areas from northern California to the Rockies that otherwise might have been wetter.

As winter ended, the high-pressure system shifted eastward, interfering with spring and summer rains that typically fall on the central plains. The dry conditions were exacerbated and spread even farther east by dust storms.

“We found that a lot of the drying that occurred in the spring time occurred downwind from where the dust storms originated,” Cook said, “suggesting that it’s actually the dust in the atmosphere that’s driving at least some of the drying in the spring and really allowing this drought event to spread upwards into the central plains.”

Dust clouds reflect sunlight and block solar energy from reaching the surface. That prevents evaporation that would otherwise help form rain clouds, meaning that the presence of the dust clouds themselves leads to less rain, Cook said.

“Previous work and this work offers some evidence that you need this dust feedback to explain the real anomalous nature of the Dust Bowl drought in 1934,” Cook said.

Dust storms like the ones in the 1930s aren’t a problem in North America today. The agricultural practices that gave rise to the Dust Bowl were replaced by those that minimize erosion. Still, agricultural producers need to pay attention to the changing climate and adapt accordingly, not forgetting the lessons of the past, said Seager. “The risk of severe mid-continental droughts is expected to go up over time, not down,” he said.

Icebergs once drifted to Florida, new climate model suggests

This is a map showing the pathway taken by icebergs from Hudson Bay, Canada, to Florida. The blue colors (behind the arrows) are an actual snapshot from the authors' high resolution model showing how much less salty the water is than normal. The more blue the color the less salty it is than normal. In this case, blue all the way along the coast shows that very fresh, cold waters are flowing along the entire east coast from Hudson Bay to Florida. -  UMass Amherst
This is a map showing the pathway taken by icebergs from Hudson Bay, Canada, to Florida. The blue colors (behind the arrows) are an actual snapshot from the authors’ high resolution model showing how much less salty the water is than normal. The more blue the color the less salty it is than normal. In this case, blue all the way along the coast shows that very fresh, cold waters are flowing along the entire east coast from Hudson Bay to Florida. – UMass Amherst

Using a first-of-its-kind, high-resolution numerical model to describe ocean circulation during the last ice age about 21,000 year ago, oceanographer Alan Condron of the University of Massachusetts Amherst has shown that icebergs and meltwater from the North American ice sheet would have regularly reached South Carolina and even southern Florida. The models are supported by the discovery of iceberg scour marks on the sea floor along the entire continental shelf.

Such a view of past meltwater and iceberg movement implies that the mechanisms of abrupt climate change are more complex than previously thought, Condron says. “Our study is the first to show that when the large ice sheet over North America known as the Laurentide ice sheet began to melt, icebergs calved into the sea around Hudson Bay and would have periodically drifted along the east coast of the United States as far south as Miami and the Bahamas in the Caribbean, a distance of more than 3,100 miles, about 5,000 kilometers.”

His work, conducted with Jenna Hill of Coastal Carolina University, is described in the current advance online issue of Nature Geosciences. “Determining how far south of the subpolar gyre icebergs and meltwater penetrated is vital for understanding the sensitivity of North Atlantic Deep Water formation and climate to past changes in high-latitude freshwater runoff,” the authors say.

Hill analyzed high-resolution images of the sea floor from Cape Hatteras to Florida and identified about 400 scour marks on the seabed that were formed by enormous icebergs plowing through mud on the sea floor. These characteristic grooves and pits were formed as icebergs moved into shallower water and their keels bumped and scraped along the ocean floor.

“The depth of the scours tells us that icebergs drifting to southern Florida were at least 1,000 feet, or 300 meters thick,” says Condron. “This is enormous. Such icebergs are only found off the coast of Greenland today.”

To investigate how icebergs might have drifted as far south as Florida, Condron simulated the release of a series of glacial meltwater floods in his high-resolution ocean circulation model at four different levels for two locations, Hudson Bay and the Gulf of St. Lawrence.

Condron reports, “In order for icebergs to drift to Florida, our glacial ocean circulation model tells us that enormous volumes of meltwater, similar to a catastrophic glacial lake outburst flood, must have been discharging into the ocean from the Laurentide ice sheet, from either Hudson Bay or the Gulf of St. Lawrence.”

Further, during these large meltwater flood events, the surface ocean current off the coast of Florida would have undergone a complete, 180-degree flip in direction, so that the warm, northward flowing Gulf Stream would have been replaced by a cold, southward flowing current, he adds.

As a result, waters off the coast of Florida would have been only a few degrees above freezing. Such events would have led to the sudden appearance of massive icebergs along the east coast of the United States all the way to Florida Keys, Condron points out. These events would have been abrupt and short-lived, probably less than a year, he notes.

“This new research shows that much of the meltwater from the Greenland ice sheet may be redistributed by narrow coastal currents and circulate through subtropical regions prior to reaching the subpolar ocean. It’s a more complicated picture than we believed before,” Condron says. He and Hill say that future research on mechanisms of abrupt climate change should take into account coastal boundary currents in redistributing ice sheet runoff and subpolar fresh water.

Has the puzzle of rapid climate change in the last ice age been solved?

During the cold stadial periods of the last ice age, massive ice sheets covered northern parts of North America and Europe. Strong northwest winds drove the Arctic sea ice southward, even as far as the French coast. Since the extended ice cover over the North Atlantic prevented the exchange of heat between the atmosphere and the ocean, the strong driving forces for the ocean currents that prevail today were lacking. Ocean circulation, which is a powerful 'conveyor belt' in the world's oceans, was thus much weaker than at present, and consequently transported less heat to northern regions. -  Map: Alfred-Wegener-Institut
During the cold stadial periods of the last ice age, massive ice sheets covered northern parts of North America and Europe. Strong northwest winds drove the Arctic sea ice southward, even as far as the French coast. Since the extended ice cover over the North Atlantic prevented the exchange of heat between the atmosphere and the ocean, the strong driving forces for the ocean currents that prevail today were lacking. Ocean circulation, which is a powerful ‘conveyor belt’ in the world’s oceans, was thus much weaker than at present, and consequently transported less heat to northern regions. – Map: Alfred-Wegener-Institut

During the last ice age a large part of North America was covered with a massive ice sheet up to 3km thick. The water stored in this ice sheet is part of the reason why the sea level was then about 120 meters lower than today. Young Chinese scientist Xu Zhang, lead author of the study who undertook his PhD at the Alfred Wegener Institute, explains. “The rapid climate changes known in the scientific world as Dansgaard-Oeschger events were limited to a period of time from 110,000 to 23,000 years before present. The abrupt climate changes did not take place at the extreme low sea levels, corresponding to the time of maximum glaciation 20,000 years ago, nor at high sea levels such as those prevailing today – they occurred during periods of intermediate ice volume and intermediate sea levels.” The results presented by the AWI researchers can explain the history of climate changes during glacial periods, comparing simulated model data with that retrieved from ice cores and marine sediments.

How rapid temperature changes might have occurred during times when the Northern Hemisphere ice sheets were at intermediate sizes (see schematic depictions on http://bit.ly/1uQoI70).

During the cold stadial periods of the last ice age, massive ice sheets covered northern parts of North America and Europe. Strong westerly winds drove the Arctic sea ice southward, even as far as the French coast. Since the extended ice cover over the North Atlantic prevented the exchange of heat between the atmosphere and the ocean, the strong driving forces for the ocean currents that prevail today were lacking. Ocean circulation, which is a powerful “conveyor belt” in the world’s oceans, was thus much weaker than at present, and consequently transported less heat to northern regions.

During the extended cold phases the ice sheets continued to thicken. When higher ice sheets prevailed over North America, typical in periods of intermediate sea levels, the prevailing westerly winds split into two branches. The major wind field ran to the north of the so-called Laurentide Ice Sheet and ensured that the sea ice boundary off the European coast shifted to the north. Ice-free seas permit heat exchange to take place between the atmosphere and the ocean. At the same time, the southern branch of the northwesterly winds drove warmer water into the ice-free areas of the northeast Atlantic and thus amplified the transportation of heat to the north. The modified conditions stimulated enhanced circulation in the ocean. Consequently, a thicker Laurentide Ice Sheet over North America resulted in increased ocean circulation and therefore greater transportation of heat to the north. The climate in the Northern Hemisphere became dramatically warmer within a few decades until, due to the retreat of the glaciers over North America and the renewed change in wind conditions, it began to cool off again.

“Using the simulations performed with our climate model, we were able to demonstrate that the climate system can respond to small changes with abrupt climate swings,” explains Professor Gerrit Lohmann, leader of the Paleoclimate Dynamics group at the Alfred Wegener Institute, Germany. In doing so he illustrates the new study’s significance with regards to contemporary climate change. “At medium sea levels, powerful forces, such as the dramatic acceleration of polar ice cap melting, are not necessary to result in abrupt climate shifts and associated drastic temperature changes.”

At present, the extent of Arctic sea ice is far less than during the last glacial period. The Laurentide Ice Sheet, the major driving force for ocean circulation during the glacials, has also disappeared. Climate changes following the pattern of the last ice age are therefore not to be anticipated under today’s conditions.

“There are apparently some situations in which the climate system is more resistant to change while in others the system tends toward strong fluctuations,” summarises Gerrit Lohmann. “In terms of the Earth’s history, we are currently in one of the climate system’s more stable phases. The preconditions, which gave rise to rapid temperature changes during the last ice age do not exist today. But this does not mean that sudden climate changes can be excluded in the future.”

New view of Rainier’s volcanic plumbing

This image was made by measuring how the ground conducts or resists electricity in a study co-authored by geophysicist Phil Wannamaker of the University of Utah Energy & Geoscience Institute. It  shows the underground plumbing system that provides molten and partly molten rock to the magma chamber beneath the Mount Rainier volcano in Washington state. The scale at left is miles depth. The scale at bottom is miles from the Pacific Coast. The Juan de Fuca plate of Earth's Pacific seafloor crust and upper mantle is shown in blue on the left half of the image as it dives or 
'subducts' eastward beneath Washington state. The reddish orange and yellow colors represent molten and partly molten rock forming atop the Juan de Fuca plate or 'slab.' The image shows the rock begins to melt about 50 miles beneath Mount Rainier (the red triangle at top). Some is pulled downward and eastward as the slab keeps diving, but other melts move upward to the orange magma chamber shown under but west of Mount Rainier. The line of sensors used to make this image were placed north of the 14,410-foot peak, so the image may be showing a lobe of the magma chamber that extends northwest of the mountain. Red ovals on the left half of the page are the hypocenters of earthquakes. -  R Shane McGary, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.
This image was made by measuring how the ground conducts or resists electricity in a study co-authored by geophysicist Phil Wannamaker of the University of Utah Energy & Geoscience Institute. It shows the underground plumbing system that provides molten and partly molten rock to the magma chamber beneath the Mount Rainier volcano in Washington state. The scale at left is miles depth. The scale at bottom is miles from the Pacific Coast. The Juan de Fuca plate of Earth’s Pacific seafloor crust and upper mantle is shown in blue on the left half of the image as it dives or
‘subducts’ eastward beneath Washington state. The reddish orange and yellow colors represent molten and partly molten rock forming atop the Juan de Fuca plate or ‘slab.’ The image shows the rock begins to melt about 50 miles beneath Mount Rainier (the red triangle at top). Some is pulled downward and eastward as the slab keeps diving, but other melts move upward to the orange magma chamber shown under but west of Mount Rainier. The line of sensors used to make this image were placed north of the 14,410-foot peak, so the image may be showing a lobe of the magma chamber that extends northwest of the mountain. Red ovals on the left half of the page are the hypocenters of earthquakes. – R Shane McGary, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

By measuring how fast Earth conducts electricity and seismic waves, a University of Utah researcher and colleagues made a detailed picture of Mount Rainier’s deep volcanic plumbing and partly molten rock that will erupt again someday.

“This is the most direct image yet capturing the melting process that feeds magma into a crustal reservoir that eventually is tapped for eruptions,” says geophysicist Phil Wannamaker, of the university’s Energy & Geoscience Institute and Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering. “But it does not provide any information on the timing of future eruptions from Mount Rainier or other Cascade Range volcanoes.”

The study was published today in the journal Nature by Wannamaker and geophysicists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts, the College of New Jersey and the University of Bergen, Norway.

In an odd twist, the image appears to show that at least part of Mount Rainier’s partly molten magma reservoir is located about 6 to 10 miles northwest of the 14,410-foot volcano, which is 30 to 45 miles southeast of the Seattle-Tacoma area.

But that could be because the 80 electrical sensors used for the experiment were placed in a 190-mile-long, west-to-east line about 12 miles north of Rainier. So the main part of the magma chamber could be directly under the peak, but with a lobe extending northwest under the line of detectors, Wannamaker says.

The top of the magma reservoir in the image is 5 miles underground and “appears to be 5 to 10 miles thick, and 5 to 10 miles wide in east-west extent,” he says. “We can’t really describe the north-south extent because it’s a slice view.”

Wannamaker estimates the reservoir is roughly 30 percent molten. Magma chambers are like a sponge of hot, soft rock containing pockets of molten rock.

The new image doesn’t reveal the plumbing tying Mount Rainier to the magma chamber 5 miles below it. Instead, it shows water and partly molten and molten rock are generated 50 miles underground where one of Earth’s seafloor crustal plates or slabs is “subducting” or diving eastward and downward beneath the North America plate, and how and where those melts rise to Rainier’s magma chamber.

The study was funded largely by the National Science Foundation’s Earthscope program, which also has made underground images of the United States using seismic or sound-wave tomography, much like CT scans show the body’s interior using X-rays.

The new study used both seismic imaging and magnetotelluric measurements, which make images by showing how electrical and magnetic fields in the ground vary due to differences in how much underground rock and fluids conduct or resist electricity.

Wannamaker says it is the most detailed cross-section view yet under a Cascades volcanic system using electrical and seismic imaging. Earlier seismic images indicated water and partly molten rock atop the diving slab. The new image shows melting “from the surface of the slab to the upper crust, where partly molten magma accumulates before erupting,” he adds.

Wannamaker and Rob L. Evans, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, conceived the study. First author R Shane McGary – then at Woods Hole and now at the College of New Jersey – did the data analysis. Other co-authors were Jimmy Elsenbeck of Woods Hole and Stéphane Rondenay of the University of Bergen.

Mount Rainier: Hazardous Backdrop to Metropolitan Seattle-Tacoma

Mount Rainier, the tallest peak in the Cascades, “is an active volcano that will erupt again,” says the U.S. Geological Survey. Rainier sits atop volcanic flows up to 36 million years old. An ancestral Rainier existed 2 million to 1 million years ago. Frequent eruptions built the mountain’s modern edifice during the past 500,000 years. During the past 11,000 years, Rainier erupted explosively dozens of times, spewing ash and pumice.

Rainier once was taller until it collapsed during an eruption 5,600 years ago to form a large crater open to the northeast, much like the crater formed by Mount St. Helens’ 1980 eruption. The 5,600-year-old eruption sent a huge mudflow west to Puget Sound, covering parts or all of the present sites of the Port of Tacoma, Seattle suburbs Kent and Auburn, and the towns Puyallup, Orting, Buckley, Sumner and Enumclaw.

Rainier’s last lava flows were 2,200 years ago, the last flows of hot rock and ash were 1,100 years ago and the last big mudflow 500 years ago. There are disputed reports of steam eruptions in the 1800s.

Subduction Made Simple – and a Peek beneath a Peak

The “ring of fire” is a zone of active volcanoes and frequent earthquake activity surrounding the Pacific Ocean. It exists where Earth’s tectonic plates collide – specifically, plates that make up the seafloor converge with plates that carry continents.

From Cape Mendocino in northern California and north past Oregon, Washington state and into British Columbia, an oceanic plate is being pushed eastward and downward – a process called subduction – beneath the North American plate. This relatively small Juan de Fuca plate is located between the huge Pacific plate and the Pacific Northwest.

New seafloor rock – rich with water in cracks and minerals – emerges from an undersea volcanic ridge some 250 miles off the coast, from northern California into British Columbia. That seafloor adds to the western edge of the Juan de Fuca plate and pushes it east-northeast under the Pacific Northwest, as far as Idaho.

The part of the plate diving eastward and downward is called the slab, which ranges from 30 to 60 miles thick as it is jammed under the North American plate. The part of the North American plate above the diving slab is shaped like a wedge.

When the leading, eastern edge of the diving slab descends deep enough, where pressures and temperatures are high, water-bearing minerals such as chlorite and amphibole release water from the slab, and the slab and surrounding mantle rock begin to melt. That is why the Cascade Range of active volcanoes extends north-to-south – above the slab and parallel but about 120 miles inland from the coast – from British Columbia south to Mount Shasta and Lassen Peak in northern California.

In the new image, yellow-orange-red areas correspond to higher electrical conductivity (or lower resistivity) in places where fluids and melts are located.

The underground image produced by the new study shows where water and molten rock accumulate atop the descending slab, and the route they take to the magma chamber that feeds eruptions of Mount Rainier:

– The rock begins to melt atop the slab about 50 miles beneath Mount Rainier. Wannamaker says it is best described as partly molten rock that contains about 2 percent water and “is a mush of crystals within an interlacing a network of molten rock.”

– Some water and partly molten rock actually gets dragged downward atop the descending slab, to depths of 70 miles or more.

– Other partly molten rock rises up through the upper mantle wedge, crosses into the crust at a depth of about 25 miles, and then rises into Rainier’s magma chamber – or at least the lobe of the chamber that crosses under the line of sensors used in the study. Evidence suggests the magma moves upward at least 0.4 inches per year.

– The new magnetotelluric image also shows a shallower zone of fluid perhaps 60 miles west of Rainier and 25 miles deep at the crust-mantle boundary. Wannamaker says it is largely water released from minerals as the slab is squeezed and heated as it dives.

The seismic data were collected during 2008-2009 for other studies. The magnetotelluric data were gathered during 2009-2010 by authors of the new study.

Wannamaker and colleagues placed an east-west line of magnetotelluric sensors: 60 that made one-day measurements and looked as deep as 30 miles into the Earth, and 20 that made measurements for a month and looked at even greater depths.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rise of consumer electronics has changed that.

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

New evidence for oceans of water deep in the Earth

Researchers from Northwestern University and the University of New Mexico report evidence for potentially oceans worth of water deep beneath the United States. Though not in the familiar liquid form — the ingredients for water are bound up in rock deep in the Earth’s mantle — the discovery may represent the planet’s largest water reservoir.

The presence of liquid water on the surface is what makes our “blue planet” habitable, and scientists have long been trying to figure out just how much water may be cycling between Earth’s surface and interior reservoirs through plate tectonics.

Northwestern geophysicist Steve Jacobsen and University of New Mexico seismologist Brandon Schmandt have found deep pockets of magma located about 400 miles beneath North America, a likely signature of the presence of water at these depths. The discovery suggests water from the Earth’s surface can be driven to such great depths by plate tectonics, eventually causing partial melting of the rocks found deep in the mantle.

The findings, to be published June 13 in the journal Science, will aid scientists in understanding how the Earth formed, what its current composition and inner workings are and how much water is trapped in mantle rock.

“Geological processes on the Earth’s surface, such as earthquakes or erupting volcanoes, are an expression of what is going on inside the Earth, out of our sight,” said Jacobsen, a co-author of the paper. “I think we are finally seeing evidence for a whole-Earth water cycle, which may help explain the vast amount of liquid water on the surface of our habitable planet. Scientists have been looking for this missing deep water for decades.”

Scientists have long speculated that water is trapped in a rocky layer of the Earth’s mantle located between the lower mantle and upper mantle, at depths between 250 miles and 410 miles. Jacobsen and Schmandt are the first to provide direct evidence that there may be water in this area of the mantle, known as the “transition zone,” on a regional scale. The region extends across most of the interior of the United States.

Schmandt, an assistant professor of geophysics at the University of New Mexico, uses seismic waves from earthquakes to investigate the structure of the deep crust and mantle. Jacobsen, an associate professor of Earth and planetary sciences at Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences, uses observations in the laboratory to make predictions about geophysical processes occurring far beyond our direct observation.

The study combined Jacobsen’s lab experiments in which he studies mantle rock under the simulated high pressures of 400 miles below the Earth’s surface with Schmandt’s observations using vast amounts of seismic data from the USArray, a dense network of more than 2,000 seismometers across the United States.

Jacobsen’s and Schmandt’s findings converged to produce evidence that melting may occur about 400 miles deep in the Earth. H2O stored in mantle rocks, such as those containing the mineral ringwoodite, likely is the key to the process, the researchers said.

“Melting of rock at this depth is remarkable because most melting in the mantle occurs much shallower, in the upper 50 miles,” said Schmandt, a co-author of the paper. “If there is a substantial amount of H2O in the transition zone, then some melting should take place in areas where there is flow into the lower mantle, and that is consistent with what we found.”

If just one percent of the weight of mantle rock located in the transition zone is H2O, that would be equivalent to nearly three times the amount of water in our oceans, the researchers said.

This water is not in a form familiar to us — it is not liquid, ice or vapor. This fourth form is water trapped inside the molecular structure of the minerals in the mantle rock. The weight of 250 miles of solid rock creates such high pressure, along with temperatures above 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, that a water molecule splits to form a hydroxyl radical (OH), which can be bound into a mineral’s crystal structure.

Schmandt and Jacobsen’s findings build on a discovery reported in March in the journal Nature in which scientists discovered a piece of the mineral ringwoodite inside a diamond brought up from a depth of 400 miles by a volcano in Brazil. That tiny piece of ringwoodite — the only sample in existence from within the Earth — contained a surprising amount of water bound in solid form in the mineral.

“Whether or not this unique sample is representative of the Earth’s interior composition is not known, however,” Jacobsen said. “Now we have found evidence for extensive melting beneath North America at the same depths corresponding to the dehydration of ringwoodite, which is exactly what has been happening in my experiments.”

For years, Jacobsen has been synthesizing ringwoodite, colored sapphire-like blue, in his Northwestern lab by reacting the green mineral olivine with water at high-pressure conditions. (The Earth’s upper mantle is rich in olivine.) He found that more than one percent of the weight of the ringwoodite’s crystal structure can consist of water — roughly the same amount of water as was found in the sample reported in the Nature paper.

“The ringwoodite is like a sponge, soaking up water,” Jacobsen said. “There is something very special about the crystal structure of ringwoodite that allows it to attract hydrogen and trap water. This mineral can contain a lot of water under conditions of the deep mantle.”

For the study reported in Science, Jacobsen subjected his synthesized ringwoodite to conditions around 400 miles below the Earth’s surface and found it forms small amounts of partial melt when pushed to these conditions. He detected the melt in experiments conducted at the Advanced Photon Source of Argonne National Laboratory and at the National Synchrotron Light Source of Brookhaven National Laboratory.

Jacobsen uses small gem diamonds as hard anvils to compress minerals to deep-Earth conditions. “Because the diamond windows are transparent, we can look into the high-pressure device and watch reactions occurring at conditions of the deep mantle,” he said. “We used intense beams of X-rays, electrons and infrared light to study the chemical reactions taking place in the diamond cell.”

Jacobsen’s findings produced the same evidence of partial melt, or magma, that Schmandt detected beneath North America using seismic waves. Because the deep mantle is beyond the direct observation of scientists, they use seismic waves — sound waves at different speeds — to image the interior of the Earth.

“Seismic data from the USArray are giving us a clearer picture than ever before of the Earth’s internal structure beneath North America,” Schmandt said. “The melting we see appears to be driven by subduction — the downwelling of mantle material from the surface.”

The melting the researchers have detected is called dehydration melting. Rocks in the transition zone can hold a lot of H2O, but rocks in the top of the lower mantle can hold almost none. The water contained within ringwoodite in the transition zone is forced out when it goes deeper (into the lower mantle) and forms a higher-pressure mineral called silicate perovskite, which cannot absorb the water. This causes the rock at the boundary between the transition zone and lower mantle to partially melt.

“When a rock with a lot of H2O moves from the transition zone to the lower mantle it needs to get rid of the H2O somehow, so it melts a little bit,” Schmandt said. “This is called dehydration melting.”

“Once the water is released, much of it may become trapped there in the transition zone,” Jacobsen added.

Just a little bit of melt, about one percent, is detectible with the new array of seismometers aimed at this region of the mantle because the melt slows the speed of seismic waves, Schmandt said.

Comet theory false; doesn’t explain Ice Age cold snap, Clovis changes, animal extinction

Controversy over what sparked the Younger Dryas, a brief return to near glacial conditions at the end of the Ice Age, includes a theory that it was caused by a comet hitting the Earth.

As proof, proponents point to sediments containing deposits they believe could result only from a cosmic impact.

Now a new study disproves that theory, said archaeologist David Meltzer, Southern Methodist University, Dallas. Meltzer is lead author on the study and an expert in the Clovis culture, the peoples who lived in North America at the end of the Ice Age.

Meltzer’s research team found that nearly all sediment layers purported to be from the Ice Age at 29 sites in North America and on three other continents are actually either much younger or much older.

Scientists agree that the brief episode at the end of the Ice Age – officially known as the Younger Dryas for a flower that flourished at that time – sparked widespread cooling of the Earth 12,800 years ago and that this cool period lasted for 1,000 years. But theories about the cause of this abrupt climate change are numerous. They range from changes in ocean circulation patterns caused by glacial meltwater entering the ocean to the cosmic-impact theory.

The cosmic-impact theory is said to be supported by the presence of geological indicators that are extraterrestrial in origin. However a review of the dating of the sediments at the 29 sites reported to have such indicators proves the cosmic-impact theory false, said Meltzer.

Meltzer and his co-authors found that only three of 29 sites commonly referenced to support the cosmic-impact theory actually date to the window of time for the Ice Age.

The findings, “Chronological evidence fails to support claim of an isochronous widespread layer of cosmic impact indicators dated to 12,800 years ago,” were reported May 12, 2014, in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Co-authors were Vance T. Holliday and D. Shane Miller, both from the University of Arizona; and Michael D. Cannon, SWCA Environmental Consultants Inc., Salt Lake City, Utah.

“The supposed impact markers are undated or significantly older or younger than 12,800 years ago,” report the authors. “Either there were many more impacts than supposed, including one as recently as 5 centuries ago, or, far more likely, these are not extraterrestrial impact markers.”

Dating of purported Younger Dryas sites proves unreliable


The Younger Dryas Impact Hypothesis rests heavily on the claim that there is a Younger Dryas boundary layer at 29 sites in the Americas and elsewhere that contains deposits of supposed extraterrestrial origin that date to a 300-year span centered on 12,800 years ago.

The deposits include magnetic grains with iridium, magnetic microspherules, charcoal, soot, carbon spherules, glass-like carbon containing nanodiamonds, and fullerenes with extraterrestrial helium, all said to result from a comet or other cosmic event hitting the Earth.

Meltzer and his colleagues tested that hypothesis by investigating the existing stratigraphic and chronological data sets reported in the published scientific literature and accepted as proof by cosmic-impact proponents, to determine if these markers dated to the onset of the Younger Dryas.

They sorted the 29 sites by the availability of radiometric or numeric ages and then the type of age control, if available, and whether the age control is secure.

The researchers found that three sites lack absolute age control: at Chobot, Alberta, the three Clovis points found lack stratigraphic context, and the majority of other diagnostic artifacts are younger than Clovis by thousands of years; at Morley, Alberta, ridges are assumed without evidence to be chronologically correlated with Ice Age hills 2,600 kilometers away; and at Paw Paw Cove, Maryland, horizontal integrity of the Clovis artifacts found is compromised, according to that site’s principal archaeologist.

The remaining 26 sites have radiometric or other potential numeric ages, but only three date to the Younger Dryas boundary layer.

At eight of those sites, the ages are unrelated to the supposed Younger Dryas boundary layer, as for example at Gainey, Michigan, where extensive stratigraphic mixing of artifacts found at the site makes it impossible to know their position to the supposed Younger Dryas boundary layer. Where direct dating did occur, it’s sometime after the 16th century A.D.

At Wally’s Beach, Alberta, a radiocarbon age of 10,980 purportedly dates extraterrestrial impact markers from sediment in the skull of an extinct horse. In actuality, the date is from an extinct musk ox, and the fossil yielding the supposed impact markers was not dated, nor is there evidence to suggest that the fossils from Wally’s Beach are all of the same age or date to the Younger Dryas onset.

At nearly a dozen other sites, the authors report, the chronological results are neither reliable nor valid as a result of significant statistical flaws in the analysis, the omission of ages from the models, and the disregard of statistical uncertainty that accompanies all radiometric dates.

For example, at Lake Cuitzeo, Mexico, Meltzer and his team used the data of previous researchers and applied a fifth-order polynomial regression, but it returned a different equation that put the cosmic-impact markers at a depth well above that which would mark the Younger Dryas onset.

The authors go on to point out that inferences about the ages of supposed Younger Dryas boundary layers are unsupported by replication in more cases than not.

In North America, the Ice Age was marked by the mass extinction of several dozen genera of large mammals, including mammoths, mastodons, American horses, Western camels, two types of deer, ancient bison, giant beaver, giant bears, sabre-toothed cats, giant bears, American cheetahs, and many other animals, as well as plants.