Driving around the Rungwe volcanic province in the southern East Africa Rift installing seismometers, we have the chance to observe first hand how geological processes in action create the most dramatic forms at Earth’s surface. Looming volcanoes flanked by cinder cones lie along the rift valley, often very close to rift faults. The Livingstone Mountains, the surface expression of a major fault system that bounds the rift to the east in this area, soar over 1.5 km over the valley below, including Lake Malawi (Nyasa).
The remarkable geological structures evident above ground motivate us to look deeper in the earth. We see volcanoes in particular places at the surface, but where are magmas located at depth below the volcanoes and the rift? Likewise, we see dramatic faults that are helping to thin and break the crust at the surface, but how do they relate to stretching of the entire crust and lithosphere beneath this part of the East Africa rift? And how are the magmas and faults related to one another? These are the core scientific questions motivating our study of the rift around northern Lake Malawi (Nyasa). We hope to use data collected during this program, including the 15 seismic stations that we are deploying now around the Rungwe province, to answer these big questions.
The last time we visited the southern part of the East Africa Rift, we were responding to an unusual series of earthquakes in December 2009 that shook northern Malawi. The faults responsible for these events had not produced any earthquakes historically, and thus caught everyone by surprise. The unexpected occurrence of earthquakes on these faults highlights our poor overall understanding of how the African continent is slowly stretching and breaking apart.
This time, we return to this part of the rift system as a part of a more comprehensive effort to understand the underpinnings of this continental rift using a spectrum of geological and geophysical tools and involving a big international team of scientists from the U.S., Tanzania and Malawi. In the coming three weeks, we plan to deploy ~15 seismometers in southwest Tanzania around the Rungwe volcanic province, the southernmost volcanism in the East Africa Rift system. These stations will record small local earthquakes associated with active shifting of faults and moving of magmas at depth. They will also record distant earthquakes that can be used to create images of structures beneath Earth’s surface and map the faults and magmas.
144 miles separates Kangerlussuaq from Raven Camp. Not far really, just 144 miles – like traveling from the southern tip of New York City up to Albany. Flying at 270 knots we can be there in about half an hour, no time at all, and yet to the casual observer they seem worlds apart.
Kanger sits nestled in the arm of Sondrestrom Fjord, where over the years Russell Glacier has found the soft belly in the rock base, wearing the surface down flat and pushing the rock flour out to sea. Currently the tip of Russell Glacier is a full 20 kms (14 mi) up the fjord. In the summer months, as research teams move through the village, glacial meltwater fills the carved channel that borders the small town.
Meltwater Rushing Behind Kangerlussuaq, Greenland
“Summer meltwater from Russell Glacier rushes around the edge of Kangerlussuaq.”
Although modest in size by our standards, Kangerlussuaq is a transportation hub for Greenland, and has a steady year-round population of ~500 residents.
Raven Camp sits high up on the Greenland Ice Sheet on a frozen bed of ice, almost 2 kms thick (~1 mi) and millions of years in the making. At almost 7,000 feet of elevation, no seasonal change will bring a rushing river or a population to match that of Kangerlussuaq, but summer research does bring an influx of summer scientists, swelling the population beyond the posted total of 2. With a handful of tents and collapsible housing structures, Raven Camp is a “summer town.”
Today we fly to Raven Camp to complete a survey grid over the ice landing strip. A year ago the camp staff detected several cracks (crevasses) in the ice running perpendicular to the airstrip. Crevasses are to be expected around the edges of an ice sheet, where the ice is faster flowing, however, at this elevation and this far inland it is more unusual. Published data for ice movement in this area shows at the base the ice is moving about 2.5 cm a day, while at the surface ice is moving closer to 7 cm a day. It is no surprise that the ice at the base moves more slowly, a result of the increased friction at the bed causing the ice to stick and slow.
Currently measuring only 10 cms across, it certainly doesn’t seem that this could cause much trouble. But if the crevasses are deep and continue to widen, they will threaten the landing strip. A team of scientists has been collecting measurements on the ground to see if these rates are changing (2013 polarfield blog1); our job is to survey the area with our instruments. The Shallow Ice Radar and the infrared camera collect the depth of the cracks and the temperature differences as the cracks move deeper into the ice. Pulling all this data together will help us understand what is happening to the ice in this area.
Our flight grid will be flown low, at 1,000 ft. above the ice surface, one third our normal survey elevation. Two East/West lines are flown perpendicular to the landing strip at 600 meters apart. Then three tie lines are flown parallel to the runway at 100 meters apart.
Once the grid is complete, we land on the airstrip, testing the seal on the pod door and collecting some camp cargo. The landing is smooth.
Temperatures today at Raven are a warm 1°C. The snow has lost some of the crispness we had experienced when we had landed in April to install a GPS on the ice. The pod is inspected. The camp looks all but abandoned, yet a snow vehicle appears with cargo that is stashed and secured for transit. While the cargo is loaded, we snap a quick IcePod team photo.
The new eight-bladed propellers on Skier 92 do their job and the take-off is smooth for our return to Kangerlussuaq, just 144 miles, 30 minutes of transit, and yet seemingly worlds apart.
1 For more on the science being collected on the ground on ice movement: http://www.polarfield.com/blog/tag/greenland-ice-cap/
For more on IcePod: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu
This is an example of the data we have collected. Right is to the East and left is to the West. This is a cross section of the Earth about 65 km long. The blue is water. The water depth here is about 5 km. The red and gray colors are a cross section of the rocks below the water. The flat layers are sedimentary rocks. The lumpy bumps (that is a technical term!) consist of blocks of continental crust and of the mantle.
Thank you to the Science Party. We had a total of 20 scientists, including undergraduate students, graduate students, post-docs, researchers, and professors. On Leg 1 we had 14 scientists and on Leg 2 we had 10 scientists. Four scientists weathered both legs. Six joined us for Leg 2. I am very grateful for all your efforts on behalf of the Galicia 3D science. I hope that you learned a lot, had a good time, and met other scientists for the first time. I suspect that we will meet one another many times in the future.I look forward to that!
This is the Technical team and the Science team for Langseth Leg 2.
radar as well as all the speed controls. There are two smaller control panels
on the port and starboard sides of the bridge for work that
involves careful maneuvering e.g. picking up OBS's.
The image on the left shows swath coverage. The image on the right shows an active ping through the water column.
A screen capture of the Spectra display. The image on the left shows active binning of the MCS data.
The image on the right shows the bins being infilled (filling holes).
When the New York Air National Guard travels to Kangerlussuaq, they toss in a few fishing poles with the baggage for whatever few hours of free time might be available. A favored pastime for this location’s summer assignments means the local lakes are well known by the crew, so when we sat down to map out the flight plan, a request for locating lakes met with an easy nod. No problem at all. It took only seconds to register that our definition of lakes might differ from theirs.
We are interested in lakes atop the ice sheet surface, places where the ice sheet melt is puddled into lakes of various sizes. It is in locations like these lakes where water, with its darker color, absorbs more heat from the sun than the surrounding white ice surface. This process can contribute to more melt, and in some instances the water finds a weak “joint” in the ice and drains right down to the bottom. Both the extent of the ponding and this process are of interest to the science community in better understanding the ice sheet.
The guard is quick to assure us, no problem, these too can be located!
It was an “optics day,” where our focus is on the cameras in IcePod. Using both our Bobcat (visible wavelength) and our (IR) infrared cameras, we will image surface lakes and the meandering meltwater channels on the ice sheet surface, and then fly over a few of the southwest fjords to image meltwater as it plumes at the calving edge of the ice sheet. This is a day that Chris Zappa, our resident oceanographer and optics expert, has been waiting patiently for. The weather is perfect, the sky crystal clear, and the instruments are humming. We are ready to go.
The surface of the ice sheet barely resembles our April visit. Large lakes, some a mile across, are printed along the ice sheet surface, as if a skipping stone has skimmed along the surface leaving pockets of water in its wake.
These ice surface lakes are viewed more cautiously than our lakes back home, as they pose a threat of suddenly emptying through a “moulin” or drainage tube. Moulins transfer water from the surface to the bottom of the ice sheet in short order, circumventing a process that could otherwise take many thousands of years. Cutting across the surface in various patterns, meandering channels carry the melting surface water into these catchment pools. On the ice sheet these channels are the equivalent of streams from our home communities. Back home they collect runoff and drain into freshwater lakes. Here they serve the same function but are more striking, as there are no plants to screen them.
The cameras work furiously. The Bobcat, is a 29-megapixel camera. The IR samples at 100 frames per second. Both cameras collect a staggering 60 gigabytes a second. Images play across the screen showing the temperature contrasts as we move over the surface features.
We move from the ice sheet to the coastline, where rugged mountains circle Greenland’s perimeter like a crown. Fjords cut through in many areas, allowing deeply stacked ice in the interior to move off the land. Today we are flying down small “arms” of Godthaab Fjord with a focus on their leading edges, where the ice meets the Atlantic water. We are interested in how the IR camera can be used to track thermal plumes at the interface of the cold glacier meltwater and the warmer ocean water. Combining both the Bobcat and the IR cameras allows sediment plumes to be tracked moving through the fjord. Sediment should warm faster than the surrounding water, and may be transferring more heat into the system. Both will tell us about circulation, mixing and transit of the glacial meltwater systems.
Flying back down the fjord we pass over a small fishing town perched on the edge of the water. There is no apparent movement below. Perhaps they have gone fishing?
For more about the IcePod project: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/icepod
Even the most skilled of English language lipreaders are only able to tease apart about 30 percent of the information being shared. I learned this reading a recent article (Kolb, 20131). The author, herself deaf, went on to note that in some transmissions the information capture is higher while in others there is nothing collected. An average of 30 percent information transfer…most of us seek more information, we are curious beings. I don’t know anyone who is happy to sit comfortably saying “yes we know 30 percent, that is good enough.”
I am surrounded by question posers, information seekers, hypothesis formers – scientists are an inquisitive bunch for sure – and that is how we find ourselves back in Greenland in July seeking to learn more about the information operating underneath and deep inside this changing ice sheet, and testing just what our IcePod instruments are capable of telling us. Thirty percent is well in excess of what we currently know about ice sheets and their processes, but every line flown and piece of data collected and analyzed builds upon our current understanding.
Prior to arriving at the base for the morning, flight plans were laid well in advance. Discussions threaded through the series of meetings leading up to our return to Kangerlssuaq, piecing together the right combination of flights that would focus on testing instruments and addressing the science. Instrument range, elevation, seasonal snow conditions, old radar lines all are factored in. Once in Greenland we must weave weather and instrument issues into our planning. Weather is cloudy and reports suggest an improvement during the week, so we will shelve our camera testing for the minute and focus on instruments designed to penetrate through the clouds. Today our flight will focus on tuning our Deep Ice Radar System (DICE).
Located at the crest of the ice sheet the elevation is just over 10,500 ft. and seems just the place to test our deep ice radar. Once aloft, we head for deep ice up over Summit. The weather reports are validated – the whole area is socked in with cloud cover and the pilots switch to Instrument Flight Rules (IFR). Our survey flight at Summit is 3,000 ft. above ground level (agl), but the aircraft instruments tell us we are 13,000 ft. above sea level (asl). The ice is deep and DICE is the focus of the next few hours as we survey and resurvey in the same area with dialogue, testing, refining and learning with each pass.
A question was raised — would we want to move to a second area to look at different conditions? Checking other areas of the ice sheet is tempting, but the science team vetoes this…”We learn more by doing this now,” holding our focus on one location. So we refocused our efforts, collecting more data, making more small adjustments, and consider that with each data point we are improving our lipreading of the ice sheet.
For more about IcePod: http://www.ldeo.columbia.edu/icepod.
1Kolb, Rachel, Seeing at the speed of sound, in Standford Magazine, March/April 2013 http://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=59977
From left to right breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
In the center image the galley staff made up of June, Hervin, and Brian pose behind a lunch of pizza and soda.
I was sent to join this cruise half way through because a lot of the scientific party had to leave and nobody more qualified than me could be found at such short notice! I have never been on a cruise before and had no idea what to expect, or any idea how complex and time consuming 3D seismic acquisition is. I have learnt so much about the technical side of acquisition and a little bit about the processing side; however I have also gained a lot of non-scientific tips and tricks!
Here are my top 5 tips:
1) ‘Boring science is good science’ – If you are bored on a 6 hour watch that is a good thing because it means that everything is running smoothly and good data is being collected. Having things to do is always a bad sign! Things have been running pretty well recently and as a result I have greatly improved my crossword skills.
2) Things will break, don’t panic! – This is a hand me down ship filled with second-hand instruments from industry vessels. Because of this a lot of the equipment is temperamental and repeatedly needs to be fixed. However, I have also seen instruments that have been offline for days randomly start working again so you never know!
3) Duck tape has a million uses – There is no end to the list of things duck tape is used for on this ship: keeping weights in place on streamers, keeping your laptop on the desk during bad weather, taping your ladder to your bunk so it doesn’t bang during rough weather and keeping ropes in place on the deck to name a few. It seems like any problem can be fixed with tape.
If you don't want your office chair rolling around or you need a cable tie just use tape!
4) Hoard food – When food you like is put out in the mess then take it while you can. A few days ago a gigantic tub of mini snickers and bounty bars was put out in the mess….I have never seen chocolate disappear so fast!
5) Taking a shower is the most dangerous activity on the ship – I recommend keeping either an elbow or hand on the wall at all times so you can feel when you start to move. I think taking a shower is probably the best form of exercise on the ship because of the amount of effort and energy it takes just to balance. Also, never soap the bottom of your feet in rough seas. That is probably classified as an extreme sport!
Located next to the Galley we have our Library which has a lot of good books (I was reading the Che Guevara's travel book before the beginning of this part II, I really want to finish it!) and these excellent chairs...they're really comfortable, believe me. You can also find a variety of mystery, fiction and scientific books on the shelves.
The library with a wide variety of books
It's a little bit small, but if you think we're in the middle of the ocean, the luxury of having some equipment must be appreciated.
The gym ... be careful when the ship is moving!So, there is a treadmill, some free weights, etc. Be aware of the pitch, roll and heave! These are the movements made by the ship. Instead of explaining them, I'll post an image which can perfectly illustrate what I'm trying to say.
The differences between pitching, rolling, and heavingFor those who appreciate an indoor sport, we also have a ping-pong table. It's located one level below the Galley, at the Main Deck. I didn't use this table either, but I'll launch a challenge: Try to play ping-pong during rough seas! Imagine how cool a ping-pong game is inside a ship facing waves of 5 or 7m (or even higher).
The ping pong table ... this could get interesting in rough seasThank you...or should I say Obrigado?
João (John) Pedro T. Zielinski
Complutense University of Madrid/Federal University of Santa Catarina
The back of the lab where most of the preprocessing and quality control is done.
Being at sea again allows me to look back at our extended stay in Vigo (Galicia). The port city of Vigo is a unique and beautiful place. The summer months are particularly nice as this part of the Atlantic coast is rainy most of the year. Vigo is just about 2hrs north of Porto (Port wine), which is in Portugal. The proximity to Portugal and the fact that in the past teaching the English language was not stressed within the school system leads to a population that speaks a mixture of Portuguese and Spanish, but not much English. As a result my (poor) Spanish was definitely put to the test as well as my ability to communicate using what are best described as elementary level sketches.
What Vigoites lack in English they make up in hospitality and a relaxed outlook on life. In short, the idea of a "siesta" is not lost on them. While the bars (and there are hundreds if not thousands) are usually open, the restaurants do not open until 8:30 p.m., and generally not at all on Sunday. However, we did manage to find one that is, and it happened to have very good (and cheap) Tapas. Although off the beaten path it quickly became one of our favorites.
A view of Cies from Playa Samil with faults indicated by the arrows.The part that we had been so patiently waiting for arrived after almost 3 weeks in this unique place. While I will not miss being in port, I am happy to have had the chance to see and experience this part of the world as it truly is a beautiful place.
It has been a while since we last updated this blog. The reasons are many. The primary reason for the delay is that we have had singular focus in launching our next project, a project that for many is a dream come true.
Before we launch into that and officially start the 2013 field season, let’s do a quick recap of our team’s efforts since last August.
Our academic year started with a bang: our new research project, which was an unexpected off shoot of our efforts to study climate, fire, and forest ecology, was funded by the National Science Foundation in September 2012.
Since then, our team has spent much time presenting prior results, new preliminary results and processing samples. Many, many samples.
First, kudos to Nicole Davi work improving a tree-ring based reconstruction of the Kherlen Gol in Mongolia (gol = river). Many of the chronologies used were collected between 2009 & 2011 as a part of the Climate, Fire, and Forest Ecology project. The new work, “Is eastern Mongolia drying? A long-term perspective of a multi-decadal trend” can be found here.
Second, we need to congratulate Cari Leland on persisting and publishing the first paper from her thesis: “A hydroclimatic regionalization of central Mongolia as inferred from tree rings “ – link
Cari’s effort set the stage for our second paper on the climate history of the Mongol Breadbasket: “Three centuries of shifting hydroclimatic regimes across the Mongolian Breadbasket“ – link
Finally, Tom Saladyga got a nice piece of his dissertation published with the article, “Privatization, Drought, and Fire Exclusion in the Tuul River Watershed, Mongolia“ – link
We have a few manuscripts in development from our Climate, Fire, and Forest history project, which ends in 2013. And, we are very happy that Byambaa is on the doorstep of completing her dissertation. This project is coming to a very nice completion and we are thrilled.
We are equally thrilled with the start of our new project, “Pluvials, Droughts, Energetics, and the Mongol Empire”. We’ve gotten a silly amount of press here, here, here, here, and here – it has been great. Both institutions have made nice videos and overviews of the project: here is an example of WVU‘s and here is LDEO‘s. Awareness of this project has been widespread. We meet new scholars from various parts of the world and it seems they are already familiar with the new study. Neil presented preliminary results at the PAGES meeting in Goa, India – that was hard work
Amy Hessl garnered two invites based upon our work. The first was a workshop primarily populated with historians on migration and empires across Eurasia. The setting and out-discipline experience was fantastic. The second was an archeology-based workshop on Chinggis Khaan in Jerusalem – sounds like that was equally hard work!
We are now gathering in Ulaanbaatar to launch the first season of ‘complete’ field work. By complete fieldwork, I mean that we will not only be collecting tree cores and cross-sections from dead trees, but Avery Shinneman Cook will be leading the effort in collecting lake sediments in central Mongolia to better understand long-term environmental history and the impact of the Mongol Empire on the landscape in and around the ancient capitol, Karakorum.
Prior to that, we will hold a 4-day workshop introducing ourselves to our wonderful and diverse team (a dream team? Besides Amy Hessl and Neil Pederson, team members include: Baatarbileg Nachin, Hanchin Tian, Nicola Di Cosmo, Avery Shinneman Cook, Kevin Anchukaitis, Oyunsanaa Byambasuren, and PhD students, Caroline Leland and John Quinn Burkhart) and their specific research. We will visit historical sites and lakes to begin the discussion on how to address some questions originally posed in our grant: did the rise of the Mongol Empire, driven literally by horsepower, benefit from an abundant climate and a surplus of ecosystem energy? Did the construction of the Mongol population, army, and herds of grazers significantly impact the landscape? Answers to the ful climatic context of the Mongol Empire has been a primary goal of the Mongolian-American Tree-RIng Project, (MATRIP) since the mid-1990s. We finally have the chance to address these questions. We do not know the answers yet, but stay tuned.
Brief Observations on an alternative approach to Mongolia:
This is my 9th trip to Mongolia. It is hard to believe that I have visited this far-away land so many times. But, when I smell the steppe as we enter the airport, I relax and hit a new mode that is akin to putting on old slippers. I go through customs with nary a concern knowing that Baatar will be waiting for me with a warm greeting and hug. The drive to UB is filled with the same conversation – “How are you? How is Mongolia? How are things going? How is your family? How are your students? My, Mongolia has changed“. It is wonderful.
What changed for me this year was how I got to Mongolia. I typically venture west and enter through eastern Asia. This time, I traveled east, stopping in Turkey, re-fueling in Bishkek, and then flying over western China and western Mongolia.
The sky was clear upon entering western China and the scenery was stunning. Really. I stopped my movie and just drooled out the window [akin to a dog?]. It adds a few hours of travel time at most, but I’d do it again.
Scenes of Going East to go East
A new study in the journal Nature provides fresh insight into deep-earth processes driving apart huge sections of the earth’s crust. The process, called rifting, mostly takes place on seabeds, but can be seen in a few places on land—nowhere more visibly than in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia. (See the slideshow below.) Here, earthquakes and volcanoes have rent the surface over some 30 million years, forming part of Africa’s Great Rift Valley. What causes this, and does it resemble the processes on the seafloor, as many geologists think?
The study suggests that conventional ideas may be wrong. Past calculations done by scientists predict that the solid rock under the Afar should be stretching and thinning substantially as the continent tears apart; thus molten rock should not have far to travel to the surface. Led by David Ferguson, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, researchers analyzed the chemical makeup of lava chunks they collected from the Afar. They showed that magmas actually came from quite deep–greater than 80 kilometers, or 45 miles, within the earth’s mantle–and formed under extraordinarily high temperatures, above 1,450 degrees C, or 2,600 F.
This implies that magmas are generated by a long-lasting plume of mantle heat. It also indicates that magma must make its way up through a surprisingly thick lid of solid rock, called the lithosphere. This idea has been supported by some seismic images of the Afar subsurface.
Rifting here is fairly slow—one or two centimeters a year, or 0.4 to 0.8 inches, and this may partly explain why so much solid rock persists. As the lithosphere is pulled apart, it does stretch, crack and thin. However, because the process in this region takes so long, the base of the lithosphere has time to cool down by losing heat to the colder rock above. This keeps the relatively cold, brittle lithosphere thicker than would be expected, and counteracts stretching. Sometimes, though, magma suddenly spurts long distances to the surface, and the earth visibly cracks and pulls apart during spectacular rifting events. That includes a series of events that started in 2005, and was closely observed by scientists.
Parts of the rift have already sunk below sea level. In the distant future–maybe 10 million years from now–the process will advance so far that the Red Sea will break through and flood the region. A new sea will open up, whether or not there is anyone around to name it.
In East Africa, earth’s crust is stretching and cracking, in a process called rifting. Here in the Afar region of northern Ethiopia, hundreds of faults and fissures have formed over time. (David Ferguson)
An important force driving the rifting is magma created beneath earth’s rocky outer shell, which has forced its way upward to push apart the crust. This eruption happened in the Afar in June 2009. (David Ferguson)
This crevice opened in a matter of hours, during a sequence of very large earthquakes in September 2005. It formed in response to magma being injected into the shallow crust, and is still emitting volcanic gases. This injection of magma was the largest event of its kind to be observed by scientists. (Lorraine Field)
Fresh lava erupted onto the desert floor preserves fragile surface textures, formed as the viscous molten rock cooled and hardened. Over time, these sharp features will erode away. (David Pyle)
A remote field site within the rift. Afar is one of the hottest and most sparsely populated regions on the planet. (David Pyle)
In a region that is vast, largely roadless and dominated by armed tribes, scientists depend on helicopters to get around, and on local people to act as guides and security guards. The climate necessitates large amounts of portable drinking water. (David Ferguson)
Lavas forming the rift surface cracked apart during an earthquake in 2005 to form this fault. The horizontal boundary between the light and dark area marks the pre-2005 ground surface, and shows that the area in the foreground dropped several meters during the quake. The geology of Afar provides many clues to the tectonic and magmatic process operating beneath our feet. (David Pyle)