Massive study provides first detailed look at how Greenland’s ice is vanishing

The surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet. A new study uses NASA data to provide the first detailed reconstruction of how the ice sheet and its many glaciers are changing. The research was led by University at Buffalo geologist Beata Csatho. -  Beata Csatho
The surface of the Greenland Ice Sheet. A new study uses NASA data to provide the first detailed reconstruction of how the ice sheet and its many glaciers are changing. The research was led by University at Buffalo geologist Beata Csatho. – Beata Csatho

The Greenland Ice Sheet is the second-largest body of ice on Earth. It covers an area about five times the size of New York State and Kansas combined, and if it melts completely, oceans could rise by 20 feet. Coastal communities from Florida to Bangladesh would suffer extensive damage.

Now, a new study is revealing just how little we understand this northern behemoth.

Led by geophysicist Beata Csatho, PhD, an associate professor of geology at the University at Buffalo, the research provides what the authors think is the first comprehensive picture of how Greenland’s ice is vanishing. It suggests that current ice sheet modeling studies are too simplistic to accurately predict the future contributions of the entire Greenland Ice Sheet to sea level rise, and that Greenland may lose ice more rapidly in the near future than previously thought.

“The great importance of our data is that for the first time, we have a comprehensive picture of how all of Greenland’s glaciers have changed over the past decade,” Csatho says.

“This information is crucial for developing and validating numerical models that predict how the ice sheet may change and contribute to global sea level over the next few hundred years,” says Cornelis J. van der Veen, PhD, professor in the Department of Geography at the University of Kansas, who played a key role in interpreting glaciological changes.

The project was a massive undertaking, using satellite and aerial data from NASA’s ICESat spacecraft and Operation IceBridge field campaign to reconstruct how the height of the Greenland Ice Sheet changed at nearly 100,000 locations from 1993 to 2012.

Ice loss takes place in a complex manner, with the ice sheet both melting and calving ice into the ocean.
The study had two major findings:

  • First, the scientists were able to provide new estimates of annual ice loss at high spatial resolution (see below).

  • Second, the research revealed that current models fail to accurately capture how the entire Greenland Ice Sheet is changing and contributing to rising oceans.

The second point is crucial to climate change modelers.

Today’s simulations use the activity of four well-studied glaciers — Jakobshavn, Helheim, Kangerlussuaq and Petermann — to forecast how the entire ice sheet will dump ice into the oceans.

But the new research shows that activity at these four locations may not be representative of what is happening with glaciers across the ice sheet. In fact, glaciers undergo patterns of thinning and thickening that current climate change simulations fail to address, Csatho says.

“There are 242 outlet glaciers wider than 1.5 km on the Greenland Ice Sheet, and what we see is that their behavior is complex in space and time,” Csatho says. “The local climate and geological conditions, the local hydrology — all of these factors have an effect. The current models do not address this complexity.”

The team identified areas of rapid shrinkage in southeast Greenland that today’s models don’t acknowledge. This leads Csatho to believe that the ice sheet could lose ice faster in the future than today’s simulations would suggest.

The results will be published on Dec. 15 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and the study and all information in this press release are embargoed until 3 p.m. Eastern Time that day.

Photos, data visualizations and video are available by contacting Charlotte Hsu at the University at Buffalo at

How much ice is the Greenland Ice Sheet losing?

To analyze how the height of the ice sheet was changing, Csatho and UB research professor and photogrammetrist Anton Schenk, PhD, developed a computational technique called Surface Elevation Reconstruction And Change detection to fuse together data from NASA satellite and aerial missions.

The analysis found that the Greenland Ice Sheet lost about 243 metric gigatons of ice annually — equivalent to about 277 cubic kilometers of ice per year — from 2003-09, the period for which the team had the most comprehensive data. This loss is estimated to have added about 0.68 millimeters of water to the oceans annually.

The figures are averages, and ice loss varied from year to year, and from region to region.

Why are today’s projections of sea level rise flawed, and how can we fix them?

Glaciers don’t just gradually lose mass when the temperature rises. That’s one reason it’s difficult to predict their response to global warming.

In the study, scientists found that some of Greenland’s glaciers thickened even when the temperature rose. Others exhibited accelerated thinning. Some displayed both thinning and thickening, with sudden reversals.

As a step toward building better models of sea level rise, the research team divided Greenland’s 242 glaciers into 7 major groups based on their behavior from 2003-09.

“Understanding the groupings will help us pick out examples of glaciers that are representative of the whole,” Csatho says. “We can then use data from these representative glaciers in models to provide a more complete picture of what is happening.”

In a new project, she and colleagues are investigating why different glaciers respond differently to warming. Factors could include the temperature of the surrounding ocean; the level of friction between a glacier and the bedrock below; the amount of water under a glacier; and the geometry of the fjord.

“The physics of these processes are not well understood,” Csatho says.

The NASA missions: A colossal undertaking

The study combined data from various NASA missions, including:

  • NASA’s Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat), which measured the ice sheet’s elevation multiple times a year at each of the nearly 100,000 locations from 2003-09.

  • NASA’s, massive aerial survey that employs highly specialized research aircrafts to collect data at less frequent intervals than ICESat. These missions began measuring the Greenland Ice Sheet’s elevation in 1993. Operation IceBridge was started in 2009 to bridge the time between ICESat-1 and ICESat-2, and will continue until at least 2017, when NASA’s next generation ICESat-2 satellite is expected to come online.

Csatho says the new study shows why careful monitoring is critical: Given the complex nature of glacier behavior, good data is crucial to building better models.


Besides Csatho, Schenk and van der Veen, the project included additional researchers from the University at Buffalo, Utrecht University in The Netherlands, the Technical University of Denmark and Florida Atlantic University.

Migrating ‘supraglacial’ lakes could trigger future Greenland ice loss

Supraglacial lakes on the Greenland ice sheet can be seen as dark blue specks in the center and to the right of this satellite image. -  USGS/NASA Landsat
Supraglacial lakes on the Greenland ice sheet can be seen as dark blue specks in the center and to the right of this satellite image. – USGS/NASA Landsat

Predictions of Greenland ice loss and its impact on rising sea levels may have been greatly underestimated, according to scientists at the University of Leeds.

The finding follows a new study, which is published today in Nature Climate Change, in which the future distribution of lakes that form on the ice sheet surface from melted snow and ice – called supraglacial lakes – have been simulated for the first time.

Previously, the impact of supraglacial lakes on Greenland ice loss had been assumed to be small, but the new research has shown that they will migrate farther inland over the next half century, potentially altering the ice sheet flow in dramatic ways.

Dr Amber Leeson from the School of Earth and Environment and a member of the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM) team, who led the study, said: “Supraglacial lakes can increase the speed at which the ice sheet melts and flows, and our research shows that by 2060 the area of Greenland covered by them will double.”

Supraglacial lakes are darker than ice, so they absorb more of the Sun’s heat, which leads to increased melting. When the lakes reach a critical size, they drain through ice fractures, allowing water to reach the ice sheet base which causes it to slide more quickly into the oceans. These changes can also trigger further melting.

Dr Leeson explained: “When you pour pancake batter into a pan, if it rushes quickly to the edges of the pan, you end up with a thin pancake. It’s similar to what happens with ice sheets: the faster it flows, the thinner it will be.

“When the ice sheet is thinner, it is at a slightly lower elevation and at the mercy of warmer air temperatures than it would have been if it were thicker, increasing the size of the melt zone around the edge of the ice sheet.”

Until now, supraglacial lakes have formed at low elevations around the coastline of Greenland, in a band that is roughly 100 km wide. At higher elevations, today’s climate is just too cold for lakes to form.

In the study, the scientists used observations of the ice sheet from the Environmental Remote Sensing satellites operated by the European Space Agency and estimates of future ice melting drawn from a climate model to drive simulations of how meltwater will flow and pool on the ice surface to form supraglacial lakes.

Since the 1970s, the band in which supraglacial lakes can form on Greenland has crept 56km further inland. From the results of the new study, the researchers predict that, as Arctic temperatures rise, supraglacial lakes will spread much farther inland – up to 110 km by 2060 – doubling the area of Greenland that they cover today.

Dr Leeson said: “The location of these new lakes is important; they will be far enough inland so that water leaking from them will not drain into the oceans as effectively as it does from today’s lakes that are near to the coastline and connected to a network of drainage channels.”

“In contrast, water draining from lakes farther inland could lubricate the ice more effectively, causing it to speed up.”

Ice losses from Greenland had been expected to contribute 22cm to global sea-level rise by 2100. However, the models used to make this projection did not account for changes in the distribution of supraglacial lakes, which Dr Leeson’s study reveals will be considerable.

If new lakes trigger further increases in ice melting and flow, then Greenland’s future ice losses and its contribution to global sea-level rise have been underestimated.

The Director of CPOM, Professor Andrew Shepherd, who is also from the School of Earth and Environment at the University of Leeds and is a co-author of the study, said: “Because ice losses from Greenland are a key signal of global climate change, it’s important that we consider all factors that could affect the rate at which it will lose ice as climate warms.

“Our findings will help to improve the next generation of ice sheet models, so that we can have greater confidence in projections of future sea-level rise. In the meantime, we will continue to monitor changes in the ice sheet losses using satellite measurements.”

Further information:

The study was funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) through their support of the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling and the National Centre for Earth Observation.

The research paper, Supraglacial lakes on the Greenland ice sheet advance inland under warming climate, is published in Nature Climate Change on 15 December 2014.

Dr Amber Leeson and Professor Andrew Shepherd are available for interview. Please contact the University of Leeds Press Office on 0113 343 4031 or email

Scientists observe the Earth grow a new layer under an Icelandic volcano

New research into an Icelandic eruption has shed light on how the Earth’s crust forms, according to a paper published today in Nature.

When the Bárðarbunga volcano, which is buried beneath Iceland’s Vatnajökull ice cap, reawakened in August 2014, scientists had a rare opportunity to monitor how the magma flowed through cracks in the rock away from the volcano. The molten rock forms vertical sheet-like features known as dykes, which force the surrounding rock apart.

Study co-author Professor Andy Hooper from the Centre for Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes, volcanoes and Tectonics (COMET) at the University of Leeds explained: “New crust forms where two tectonic plates are moving away from each other. Mostly this happens beneath the oceans, where it is difficult to observe.

“However, in Iceland this happens beneath dry land. The events leading to the eruption in August 2014 are the first time that such a rifting episode has occurred there and been observed with modern tools, like GPS and satellite radar.”

Although it has a long history of eruptions, Bárðarbunga has been increasingly restless since 2005. There was a particularly dynamic period in August and September this year, when more than 22,000 earthquakes were recorded in or around the volcano in just four weeks, due to stress being released as magma forced its way through the rock.

Using GPS and satellite measurements, the team were able to track the path of the magma for over 45km before it reached a point where it began to erupt, and continues to do so to this day. The rate of dyke propagation was variable and slowed as the magma reached natural barriers, which were overcome by the build-up of pressure, creating a new segment.

The dyke grows in segments, breaking through from one to the next by the build up of pressure. This explains how focused upwelling of magma under central volcanoes is effectively redistributed over large distances to create new upper crust at divergent plate boundaries, the authors conclude.

As well as the dyke, the team found ‘ice cauldrons’ – shallow depressions in the ice with circular crevasses, where the base of the glacier had been melted by magma. In addition, radar measurements showed that the ice inside Bárðarbunga’s crater had sunk by 16m, as the volcano floor collapsed.

COMET PhD student Karsten Spaans from the University of Leeds, a co-author of the study, added: “Using radar measurements from space, we can form an image of caldera movement occurring in one day. Usually we expect to see just noise in the image, but we were amazed to see up to 55cm of subsidence.”

Like other liquids, magma flows along the path of least resistance, which explains why the dyke at Bárðarbunga changed direction as it progressed. Magma flow was influenced mostly by the lie of the land to start with, but as it moved away from the steeper slopes, the influence of plate movements became more important.

Summarising the findings, Professor Hooper said: “Our observations of this event showed that the magma injected into the crust took an incredibly roundabout path and proceeded in fits and starts.

“Initially we were surprised at this complexity, but it turns out we can explain all the twists and turns with a relatively simple model, which considers just the pressure of rock and ice above, and the pull exerted by the plates moving apart.”

The paper ‘Segmented lateral dyke growth in a rifting event at Bárðarbunga volcanic system, Iceland’ is published in Nature on 15 December 2014.

The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme under Grant Agreement No. 308377 (Project FUTUREVOLC)

West Antarctic melt rate has tripled: UC Irvine-NASA

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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First harvest of research based on the final GOCE gravity model

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

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

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

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

Moving on: new science, future missions

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

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

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

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


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

Asteroid impacts on Earth make structurally bizarre diamonds

Diamond grains from the Canyon Diablo meteorite are shown. The tick marks are spaced one-fifth of a millimeter (200 microns) apart. -  Arizona State University/Laurence Garvie
Diamond grains from the Canyon Diablo meteorite are shown. The tick marks are spaced one-fifth of a millimeter (200 microns) apart. – Arizona State University/Laurence Garvie

Scientists have argued for half a century about the existence of a form of diamond called lonsdaleite, which is associated with impacts by meteorites and asteroids. A group of scientists based mostly at Arizona State University now show that what has been called lonsdaleite is in fact a structurally disordered form of ordinary diamond.

The scientists’ report is published in Nature Communications, Nov. 20, by Péter Németh, a former ASU visiting researcher (now with the Research Centre of Natural Sciences of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences), together with ASU’s Laurence Garvie, Toshihiro Aoki and Peter Buseck, plus Natalia Dubrovinskaia and Leonid Dubrovinsky from the University of Bayreuth in Germany. Buseck and Garvie are with ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration, while Aoki is with ASU’s LeRoy Eyring Center for Solid State Science.

“So-called lonsdaleite is actually the long-familiar cubic form of diamond, but it’s full of defects,” says Péter Németh. These can occur, he explains, due to shock metamorphism, plastic deformation or unequilibrated crystal growth.

The lonsdaleite story began almost 50 years ago. Scientists reported that a large meteorite, called Canyon Diablo after the crater it formed on impact in northern Arizona, contained a new form of diamond with a hexagonal structure. They described it as an impact-related mineral and called it lonsdaleite, after Dame Kathleen Lonsdale, a famous crystallographer.

Since then, “lonsdaleite” has been widely used by scientists as an indicator of ancient asteroidal impacts on Earth, including those linked to mass extinctions. In addition, it has been thought to have mechanical properties superior to ordinary diamond, giving it high potential industrial significance. All this focused much interest on the mineral, although pure crystals of it, even tiny ones, have never been found or synthesized. That posed a long-standing puzzle.

The ASU scientists approached the question by re-examining Canyon Diablo diamonds and investigating laboratory samples prepared under conditions in which lonsdaleite has been reported.

Using the advanced electron microscopes in ASU’s Center for Solid State Science, the team discovered, both in the Canyon Diablo and the synthetic samples, new types of diamond twins and nanometer-scale structural complexity. These give rise to features attributed to lonsdaleite.

“Most crystals have regular repeating structures, much like the bricks in a well-built wall,” says Peter Buseck. However, interruptions can occur in the regularity, and these are called defects. “Defects are intermixed with the normal diamond structure, just as if the wall had an occasional half-brick or longer brick or row of bricks that’s slightly displaced to one side or another.”

The outcome of the new work is that so-called lonsdaleite is the same as the regular cubic form of diamond, but it has been subjected to shock or pressure that caused defects within the crystal structure.

One consequence of the new work is that many scientific studies based on the presumption that lonsdaleite is a separate type of diamond need to be re-examined. The study implies that both shock and static compression can produce an intensely defective diamond structure.

The new discovery also suggests that the observed structural complexity of the Canyon Diablo diamond results in interesting mechanical properties. It could be a candidate for a product with exceptional hardness.

The School of Earth and Space Exploration is an academic unit of ASU’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Volcano hazards and the role of westerly wind bursts in El Niño

On June 27, lava from Kīlauea, an active volcano on the island of Hawai'i, began flowing to the northeast, threatening the residents in a community in the District of Puna. -  USGS
On June 27, lava from Kīlauea, an active volcano on the island of Hawai’i, began flowing to the northeast, threatening the residents in a community in the District of Puna. – USGS

On 27 June, lava from Kīlauea, an active volcano on the island of Hawai’i, began flowing to the northeast, threatening the residents in Pāhoa, a community in the District of Puna, as well as the only highway accessible to this area. Scientists from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Hawaiian Volcano Observatory (HVO) and the Hawai’i County Civil Defense have been monitoring the volcano’s lava flow and communicating with affected residents through public meetings since 24 August. Eos recently spoke with Michael Poland, a geophysicist at HVO and a member of the Eos Editorial Advisory Board, to discuss how he and his colleagues communicated this threat to the public.

Drilling a Small Basaltic Volcano to Reveal Potential Hazards

Drilling into the Rangitoto Island Volcano in the Auckland Volcanic Field in New Zealand offers insight into a small monogenetic volcano, and may improve understanding of future hazards.

From AGU’s journals: El Niño fades without westerly wind bursts

The warm and wet winter of 1997 brought California floods, Florida tornadoes, and an ice storm in the American northeast, prompting climatologists to dub it the El Niño of the century. Earlier this year, climate scientists thought the coming winter might bring similar extremes, as equatorial Pacific Ocean conditions resembled those seen in early 1997. But the signals weakened by summer, and the El Niño predictions were downgraded. Menkes et al. used simulations to examine the differences between the two years.

The El Niño-Southern Oscillation is defined by abnormally warm sea surface temperatures in the eastern Pacific Ocean and weaker than usual trade winds. In a typical year, southeast trade winds push surface water toward the western Pacific “warm pool”–a region essential to Earth’s climate. The trade winds dramatically weaken or even reverse in El Niño years, and the warm pool extends its reach east.

Scientists have struggled to predict El Niño due to irregularities in the shape, amplitude, and timing of the surges of warm water. Previous studies suggested that short-lived westerly wind pulses (i.e. one to two weeks long) could contribute to this irregularity by triggering and sustaining El Niño events.

To understand the vanishing 2014 El Niño, the authors used computer simulations and examined the wind’s role. The researchers find pronounced differences between 1997 and 2014. Both years saw strong westerly wind events between January and March, but those disappeared this year as spring approached. In contrast, the westerly winds persisted through summer in 1997.

In the past, it was thought that westerly wind pulses were three times as likely to form if the warm pool extended east of the dateline. That did not occur this year. The team says their analysis shows that El Niño’s strength might depend on these short-lived and possibly unpredictable pulses.


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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.”


To read the paper go to

Synthetic biology for space exploration

Synthetic biology could be a key to manned space exploration of Mars. -  Photo courtesy of NASA
Synthetic biology could be a key to manned space exploration of Mars. – Photo courtesy of NASA

Does synthetic biology hold the key to manned space exploration of Mars and the Moon? Berkeley Lab researchers have used synthetic biology to produce an inexpensive and reliable microbial-based alternative to the world’s most effective anti-malaria drug, and to develop clean, green and sustainable alternatives to gasoline, diesel and jet fuels. In the future, synthetic biology could also be used to make manned space missions more practical.

“Not only does synthetic biology promise to make the travel to extraterrestrial locations more practical and bearable, it could also be transformative once explorers arrive at their destination,” says Adam Arkin, director of Berkeley Lab’s Physical Biosciences Division (PBD) and a leading authority on synthetic and systems biology.

“During flight, the ability to augment fuel and other energy needs, to provide small amounts of needed materials, plus renewable, nutritional and taste-engineered food, and drugs-on-demand can save costs and increase astronaut health and welfare,” Arkin says. “At an extraterrestrial base, synthetic biology could even make more effective use of the catalytic activities of diverse organisms.”

Arkin is the senior author of a paper in the Journal of the Royal Society Interface that reports on a techno-economic analysis demonstrating “the significant utility of deploying non-traditional biological techniques to harness available volatiles and waste resources on manned long-duration space missions.” The paper is titled “Towards Synthetic Biological Approaches to Resource Utilization on Space Missions.” The lead and corresponding author is Amor Menezes, a postdoctoral scholar in Arkin’s research group at the University of California (UC) Berkeley. Other co-authors are John Cumbers and John Hogan with the NASA Ames Research Center.

One of the biggest challenges to manned space missions is the expense. The NASA rule-of-thumb is that every unit mass of payload launched requires the support of an additional 99 units of mass, with “support” encompassing everything from fuel to oxygen to food and medicine for the astronauts, etc. Most of the current technologies now deployed or under development for providing this support are abiotic, meaning non-biological. Arkin, Menezes and their collaborators have shown that providing this support with technologies based on existing biological processes is a more than viable alternative.

“Because synthetic biology allows us to engineer biological processes to our advantage, we found in our analysis that technologies, when using common space metrics such as mass, power and volume, have the potential to provide substantial cost savings, especially in mass,” Menezes says.

In their study, the authors looked at four target areas: fuel generation, food production, biopolymer synthesis, and pharmaceutical manufacture. They showed that for a 916 day manned mission to Mars, the use of microbial biomanufacturing capabilities could reduce the mass of fuel manufacturing by 56-percent, the mass of food-shipments by 38-percent, and the shipped mass to 3D-print a habitat for six by a whopping 85-percent. In addition, microbes could also completely replenish expired or irradiated stocks of pharmaceuticals, which would provide independence from unmanned re-supply spacecraft that take up to 210 days to arrive.

“Space has always provided a wonderful test of whether technology can meet strict engineering standards for both effect and safety,” Arkin says. “NASA has worked decades to ensure that the specifications that new technologies must meet are rigorous and realistic, which allowed us to perform up-front techno-economic analysis.”

The big advantage biological manufacturing holds over abiotic manufacturing is the remarkable ability of natural and engineered microbes to transform very simple starting substrates, such as carbon dioxide, water biomass or minerals, into materials that astronauts on long-term missions will need. This capability should prove especially useful for future extraterrestrial settlements.

“The mineral and carbon composition of other celestial bodies is different from the bulk of Earth, but the earth is diverse with many extreme environments that have some relationship to those that might be found at possible bases on the Moon or Mars,” Arkin says. “Microbes could be used to greatly augment the materials available at a landing site, enable the biomanufacturing of food and pharmaceuticals, and possibly even modify and enrich local soils for agriculture in controlled environments.”

The authors acknowledge that much of their analysis is speculative and that their calculations show a number of significant challenges to making biomanufacturing a feasible augmentation and replacement for abiotic technologies. However, they argue that the investment to overcome these barriers offers dramatic potential payoff for future space programs.

“We’ve got a long way to go since experimental proof-of-concept work in synthetic biology for space applications is just beginning, but long-duration manned missions are also a ways off,” says Menezes. “Abiotic technologies were developed for many, many decades before they were successfully utilized in space, so of course biological technologies have some catching-up to do. However, this catching-up may not be that much, and in some cases, the biological technologies may already be superior to their abiotic counterparts.”


This research was supported by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the University of California, Santa Cruz.

Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory addresses the world’s most urgent scientific challenges by advancing sustainable energy, protecting human health, creating new materials, and revealing the origin and fate of the universe. Founded in 1931, Berkeley Lab’s scientific expertise has been recognized with 13 Nobel prizes. The University of California manages Berkeley Lab for the U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science. For more, visit

Mysterious Midcontinent Rift is a geological hybrid

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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