The annual American Geophysical Union (AGU) meeting is an all-you-can-eat buffet of the most current scientific knowledge available on the planet. Name your pleasure: space, climate change, geomagnetism, nonlinear geophysics, volcanology, biogeosciences, etc. You have to be careful to indulge in moderation over the five-day event, or risk unseemly bloating.
The Columbia Water Center contributed its own tasty dishes to the feast, mostly under the hydrology section of the menu. (but enough of the food analogies)
Several CWC scientists and affiliated researchers gave talks at this year’s event, December 13 – 17, in San Francisco, and several more had posters representing their work on display. The CWC contribution drew heavily on our research projects in India, but also explored other water issues. Detailed slideshows and posters, along with videos (some filmed in dark presentation rooms) are available on a web page devoted to CWC at AGU 2010.
Upmanu Lall started the week with a presentation called ‘Why is it Flooding Everywhere this Year? Coincidence or a Predictable Climate Phenomenon, and How Can We Respond?’ Without going into the technical material here, Lall concluded that a project on understanding and predicting global flood and drought patterns could facilitate flood risk management and climate change adaptation activities. These would benefit local, state and national planners, and also corporations and financial industries such as insurance.
Shama Perveen and Naresh Devineni are working on a project to develop an in-depth assessment of the growing water shortages in India, as discussed in an earlier post by Perveen. At AGU she spoke about ‘Quantifying the Dimensions of Water Crisis in India: Spatial Water Deficits and Storage Requirements’. Preveen showed a series of diagrams that demonstrated the rapidly falling Indian groundwater levels, population pressure and agricultural demands. Devineni followed up with a look at the water storage capacity in different parts of India, relating them to crop water requirements. This work will help Indian policy makers decide which crops can be grown in each geographic region to maximize food production while minimizing water use.
PhD student Ram Fishman addressed ‘How Low Can It Go? – Scenarios for the Future of Water Tables and Groundwater Irrigated Agriculture in India’, which looked at the relationship between energy use, water use and agricultural production, and their combined effect on the water table. He also presented a poster, ‘Does Irrigation Buffer Agriculture from Climatic Variability – Evidence from India’, which further elaborates on this research.
Tobias Siegfried offered five posters, which ranged from water stress and conflict in Central Asia to groundwater sustainability in India, to climate change impacts in the western US.
Chandra Krishnamurthy, Christina Karamperidou and visiting professor Francesco Cioffi also used posters to explain their research projects, and IRI’s Paul Block gave a presentation on ‘Statistical Dynamical Climate Predictions to Guide Water Resources in Ethiopia’.
Lall then finished up the week with two more presentations. One, ‘Will Hydrologists Learn from the World Around Them?’, was a critique of climate research that doesn’t adequately address the issues of bias in modeling.
In the other, ‘Exploring Oceanic Source Regions and Moisture Transport of Extreme Floods over Large Basins in the Contiguous United States’, Lall talked about the statistical analysis of atmospheric moisture circulation patterns, which may be able to help predict large flooding events in specific geographical regions.
As a group, the work presented was a significant contribution to the AGU meeting, which gave all the researchers the opportunity to interact with scientists in related fields, and keep increasing our collective knowledge and understanding of critical global climate and water issues.
Next year’s AGU feast may be even more lavish….
Columbia Water Center AGU 2010 resources page here.
A major factor in predicting future climate change and its impact on the planet is the response of the Earth’s ice sheets to warming temperatures. Understanding the historical context and dynamics of Antarctica’s massive ice sheets is critical for modeling future changes that have the potential to impact the globe, including significant contributions to sea level rise.
Michael Kaplan and Gisela Winckler, two climate scientists from Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, along with Kathy Licht and Jeff Swope from Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis, have recently started a new project, funded by the National Science Foundation, to study the timing and extent of advances of the East Antarctic ice sheet in the past. Integrating field work, geochemical analyses and cutting-edge isotope-based dating tools will allow the scientists to develop a record of fluctuations in the East Antarctic ice sheet and to identify past changes in both ice sheet flow direction and bedrock composition.
On December 13th, Kathy Licht and Mike Kaplan, along with Tim Flood and undergraduate Nicole Bader, both from St. Norbert College, left for their exciting trip to the East Antarctic plateau to collect samples to address these research objectives. Their route will take them via Christchurch, New Zealand, to the Antarctic station McMurdo and on to the East Antarctic ice sheet. It will take them about two weeks to get to the field site.
Accompanied by mountaineer Mike Roberts, they will work from two remote field camps at the edge of the Transantarctic Mountains. The satellite image shows the study region with the major outlet glaciers from East Antarctica crossing the Transantarctic Mountains and flowing northeastward into the Ross Ice Shelf and West Antarctic Ice Sheet. The sites noted in purple will be the location of the two small field camps where the group will be collecting samples. The blue star shows the location of a large field camp, which will be the jumping off point for transport to the smaller camps. The green and yellow dots show the locations of samples collected during two previous expeditions to the region. Over the course of a month, the team will sample boulders and glacial sediments that have accumulated on the ice sheet surface over thousands of years.
Kathy and Mike will report from their adventurous trip on this blog while I will facilitate communication with the field camp and answer questions about the laboratory side of the project.
If you have any questions or comments, please feel free to ask. I will field questions and send them over to Antarctica from where Kathy and Mike will, whenever possible, send back answers.
Stay tuned for exciting dispatches from Antarctica.
If climate change proceeds apace, summer sea ice in the Arctic is projected to nearly disappear by the end of this century. But a group of researchers predicts that ice will continue to collect in one small area, perhaps providing a last-ditch stand for ringed seals, polar bears and other creatures that cannot live without it. The findings were presented yesterday at a heavily attended press conference put on by the American Geophysical Union by polar oceanographers Stephanie Pfirman and Robert Newton of Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, along with colleagues from Alaska and Canada.
Studies of ice formation patterns, water currents, winds and the arrangement of arctic land masses has led the scientists to project that even as summer sea ice nearly disappears from the northern ocean by about 2050, floes will continue to pile up and persist along the northern flanks of the Canadian Archipelago and Greenland. This region is currently clogged with heavy ice, some of it drifting in from as far away as Siberia.
“We wanted to look at the tail end–what will happen after the arctic moves to largely ice-free state?” said Pfirman. “Where will the [last] ice be located? If it collects in one area, it could maintain a sea-ice ecosystem for decades.” Brendan Kelly, a polar biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Juneau, Alaska, explored the ecological implications, but cited potential problems, including declines in the snow cover needed by seals, and the genetic dangers of having declining populations of rare creatures crammed into shrinking areas. Bruno Tremblay, a climatologist and oceanographer at McGill University, in Montreal, ran an animation showing the shrinkage of warm-season sea ice in the recent past, and a projection into the future . The scientists said that sea ice will continue to cover the ocean in the winter for the foreseeable future–but that arctic creatures need the ice during warmer seasons as well to breed and eat.
Newton said that if there is to be a remnant area, the “first step” is to identify where it might be. With this information, a wide community of governments and native peoples would then at least have information available to consider whether or how to manage such a place in the face of shipping, oil exploration, tourism and other activities that are expected to increase as the arctic becomes more accessible. “We’re hoping to provoke this conversation,” said Newton.
Read the news reports in:
The 125 million people of the Caribbean/Gulf of Mexico region are highly exposed to hurricanes, floods and landslides–and it is not only because of bad weather. Increasing numbers of the poor are crowding into confined areas that are most prone to destruction–low-lying flood plains, too-steep hillsides, and the like. Robert Chen, director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network (CIESIN), will describe this alarming trend in an AGU talk on Friday, the last day of the meeting.
CIESIN specializes in creating maps that show humans’ interaction with the natural environment. Ones for this region show deadly combinations of poverty and physical vulnerability to weather. (Blues signal low numbers; greens moderate; yellow to red, progressively more.) Hotspots are clustered across Cuba, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Jamaica. Along the coast of Latin America are wide swaths of danger spanning Colombia, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Guatemala and Mexico. Not surprisingly, low-lying parts of Texas, Louisiana and southern Florida also stand out.
Many scientists believe climate change will worsen extremes of weather. The CIESIN research suggest that even if this never happens, as the population of dangerous areas grows, these hotspots will continue to get more dangerous.
All day long a flood of thousands scientists and students ebbs and flows across San Francisco’s 4th Street and Howard Avenue, coursing between the cavernous Moscone West and Moscone South convention buildings. The AGU is like a supercomputer of earth science, with human currents of data swapping information, heading from one talk to another, processing what they’ve heard, who they’ve met, what’s coming next.
What’s coming next in New York City, sooner or later, is a long dry spell, according to research by Lamont-Doherty’s Neil Pederson. The city has seen repeated shortages of water over the past 20 years — even though the climate has been relatively wet over the past few decades, and despite a decline in overall water use. Pederson says the water system emergencies of recent years suggest that “maybe the system is not in tune with the climate.”
Ultimately, he said in a talk today at AGU, New York City “is not prepared for the next significant drought.”
Pederson and his colleagues looked at 12 species of trees along the Hudson River Valley and, combined with research by Ed Cook, director of Lamont’s Lamont’s Tree Ring Lab, and others, constructed a record of rain and drought going back into the 1500s. There are still a few trees around who’ve seen four or more centuries pass, Pederson said, including on in the Hudson Valley dating to the early 1500s. Additional records researched by Cook come from the beams cut for now-historic homes built in the 18th century, Pederson added.
The use of 12 species has expanded the accuracy of the chronology, Pederson believes, though it’s hard to gauge by how much just yet. He found that the region has suffered severe droughts in every century through the 1800s. But except for a short period in the 1960s, the dry periods over the past 120 years have been relatively minor. Is the New York City region due for another paleo-scale drought?
David Walker, a professor of geochemistry at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, will be honored tonight by colleagues at the American Geophysical Union for decades of groundbreaking work to understand the early formation of the moon and Earth. Walker will receive the AGU’s Harry H. Hess Medal, awarded for “outstanding achievements in research of the constitution and evolution of Earth and other planets.”
Walker began his career as a student at Harvard University in the late 1960s and early 1970s, as samples of the moon were being returned by the Apollo space missions. Walker was into experimental petrology, a field in which lab scientists try to re-create and understand the conditions under which natural rocks form. With the aid of the moon samples, Walker helped helped piece together much of the story of lunar history accepted today. “Much of what we now take for granted about the formation of the lunar crust and mantle came out of the Harvard experimental petrology lab in the 1970s, clearly with Dave Walker’s intellectual stamp on it,” said Carl B. Agee, a planetary geologist at the University of New Mexico who wrote the citation for the award.
After coming to Lamont a few years later, Walker began working on questions about Earth, including its early separation into chemically distinct layers, and the genesis of magmas that flow out at mid-ocean ridges to form the seafloors. He is currently working on experimental studies to elucidate the formation of earth’s core, and its interaction with the overlying mantle.
Walker also played a key role in developing devices that could duplicate the extreme high-pressure conditions found deep within planets, simplifying designs so that any decent machine shop could turn out the equipment cheaply. “Walker-type” anvils, used to compress experimental solutions to these extreme pressures, are now standard in labs across the world.
Along the way, Walker also has found time to become a popular teacher who has helped students explore topics as diverse as alternative energy sources; radioactive waste, and mineralogy. Agee wrote that Walker “is a true leader in experimental petrology, in both designing and improving experimental equipment, and pioneering new ideas of the evolution of the Earth, Moon and planets.”
India is running “the largest water-mining project in the world”–and it cannot be sustained much longer, Columbia Water Center researcher Shama Perveen told an audience on Monday. That is mainly because farmers, who depend heavily on irrigation water drawn from underground aquifers, are using far more water than rainfall can replenish. Perveen’s talk, “Quantifying the Dimensions of Water Crisis in India,” contained a series of daunting statistics:
–India’s northern breadbasket region, home to 600 million people, lost about 60 cubic kilometers of water from its groundwater aquifers in 2002-2008.
–Farmers who used to pump water from five or 10 feet below the surface are now sometimes drilling down 200 or 300 feet.
–Unlike the United States and Australia, which have dams that can store up to 6,000 cubic meters of water for each person, India has a dismal storage capacity of 200 cubic meters per capita.
Perveen says that building dams will not suffice, because of the extreme imbalance between rains and usage; in some regions, dams would have to hold five years’ worth of rainfall just to keep up. In the future, India will have to make irrigation far more efficient, and switch from water-intensive crops like rice, she said.
Navigating the ocean of AGU requires patience. For a newcomer, parsing the inch-thick spiral-bound notebook of presentations, with pages of maps of the enormous Moscone Center, is a bit like finding your way around a city in a foreign language (at least there’s a nice crossword puzzle on Page 31).
You need the right tools to understand what’s going on, and to get where you need to go. Columbia researchers have been looking for the right tools to navigate another complicated place: The gap between what climate science tells us, and how a lot of the public hears that information, and what policymakers are prepared to do about it. They’re giving a couple of talks on the subject at AGU.
On Wednesday, Mary-Elena Carr will join colleagues from the Columbia Climate Center Lamont-Doherty to talk about “Climate Information and Misinformation: Getting the Message Out.” With researchers from Deutsche Bank Climate Change Advisors, they looked at three ways to address climate change skepticism: blogging about it, talking to people in discussion groups, and writing a report.
“As scientists, I think we sometimes come at it in a very naïve way,” Carr says. If you just give people the facts, they should be able to figure it out. That didn’t work when they blogged: Pushing the climate hot button led down a rabbit hole of contention and suspicion. The discussion group left participants hungry for more information.
The conclusion: That using a single report – like one Carr prepared for Deutsche Bank in 2009 – is the best way to address the skeptics. Ultimately, Carr says, you need a variety of sources talking about climate change, including political and religious leaders – and people the audience can identify with.
On Thursday, Sabine Marx of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions will speak on “The Psychology of Climate Change Communication.” She has studied how different groups of people think about climate, and how to use that information to talk about the science.
“For most people abstract information does not translate into powerful vivid images that would trigger action,” Marx wrote. “Furthermore, we have found that people’s interpretation of scientific uncertainty can get in the way of using forecasts and projections. Other barriers include public risk perceptions and attitudes, cultural values, and myopia, as well as the importance that people place on self-interest/economic goals vs. collective interest/social goals.”
But, Marx says, there are ways to overcome these barriers. For instance, you can start with a good story.
Like dirt swept under the carpet, some of the human-made heat produced over the last century has been getting soaked up by the world’s oceans, and sinking into deep waters. Now, it is coming back to haunt the surface, in a very sensitive place: western Antarctica, where vast ice sheets meet the ocean. The result appears to be that ice is rapidly being eaten from the bottom, says Douglas Martinson, a polar scientist at Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory, who presented the findings Monday at the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union.
Martinson said that heat stored in deep waters far from Antarctica is being pushed southward and becoming entrained in the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, a vast, wind-driven water mass that constantly circles the frozen continent. The evidence comes from 18 years of Antarctic voyages Martinson has made to measure water temperature, salinity and other qualities at different depths. He called the increases in ocean heat in the past few decades “jaw dropping.” Temperatures have risen only a few degrees above the melting point–but that is all it takes to cut at the ice front. “This is like a huge freight of hot coals–fresh, hot water being delivered right to the the front door,” he said.
This raises the specter of sea-level rise driven by melting in this region–but there is a larger implication, said Martinson. Even if all sources of human-produced carbon dioxide in the air were cut off, the built-up heat will remain in the ocean for many years to come. “Pretend your brains out that the politicians did something to stop global warming tomorrow. Even if they did, we will still have decades and decades of upwelling of that warmed water eating ice,” he said.
Read a Discovery News article about Martinson’s talk.
This week marks the world’s largest annual gathering of earth and space scientists: the five-day December meeting of the American Geophysical Union. There will be about 18,000 of them, spread across two giant San Francisco convention halls giving talks and discussing the latest in their fields. Scores of researchers from the Earth Institute will be involved. Among many other things, they will give presentations on the destruction of Antarctic ice by warming oceans (from Douglas Martinson, Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory); clues contained in ancient trees as to how climate change may affect New York City (Neil Pederson of Lamont); an examination of India’s water crisis (Shama Perveen of the Columbia Water Center); and fast-growing “hotspots” of potential weather-related disasters in the Caribbean” (Bob Chen, director of the Center for International Earth Science Information Network).
On brighter notes, William Ryan and colleagues at Lamont will demo a new mobile app called Earth Observer, scheduled to be released this week at the Apple iTunes store, which gives the general public access to fabulous graphics and information about the earth previously tapped mainly by scientists. There is also the traditional Lamont-Doherty alumni party, held every year on Tuesday night at AGU—a gathering that reunites top scientists from across the world who studied at Lamont.
The IceBridge mission has been having trouble getting flights up recently, which we have been assured is par for the course in this kind of work, but still it is frustrating! Here we are down in Punta Arenas waiting…waiting…waiting. We have faced a series of weather related stoppages and then the normal issues with equipment repairs causing this season to unfold with agonizing slowness. We were, of course, spoiled by all our successes of the prior campaigns, when flights seemed to lift off with uncanny regularity!
However, last week there was a period where the weather and airplane were in synch and we got three flying days in a row, one to the South Pole with my colleague onboard, and two that I was on along the Western edge of the Antarctic Peninsula. The targets of my two flights were the ice shelves, where the ice flows off the Antarctic continent and ends floating in the sea. (see image)
I was eager to be involved in these two flights along the Antarctic Peninsula as they were to survey the Getz and the Dotson ice shelves which involves flying over the Amundsen Sea and past Thwaites Glacier. These floating ice shelves appear in a line, Thwaites, then Dotson, and then Getz (moving from the direction of tip of the peninsula downward). I have been working on data that were collected last year from the Thwaites area so it was good to at least be flying in the ‘neighborhood’. The Dotson flight was particularly useful for me, since the grid flown over it can be connected in to the Thwaites grid, extending my survey area and our understanding of that area.
I hadn’t been on a science flight before, so everything was new to me. There is a network on the plane so we can all sit with our laptops and follow our position on the map, see where we are going, how high and fast we are flying, and other information. There are additional cameras looking forwards and downwards, so we have a wide field of view in addition to looking out the window (which we did plenty of!) (see image)!
The different kinds of ice we flew over captured my interest…from icebergs in the open water, to big plates of sea ice, the expanse of flat, floating ice shelves and the crevassed glaciers. Each has a function in the polar region and studying the movements, expanse, depth of each can tell us a different piece of information about our changing polar region. There was a lot of variation in what was all essentially ice. For this flight, however, the targets was ice shelves, where the ice is floating on the sea. Collecting gravity data, which is Lamont’s role in this project, is important on these surveys because while the other instruments can measure the top (laser), bottom and internal surfaces of the ice (radar), they don’t “see” all the way down to the sea floor. The gravity measurement is controlled by the bathymetry of the sea floor, as well as by changes in geology, so we can use it to model the sea floor. Knowing what is under the shelves, how the ice is “hinged” to the continent, and how the ocean water beneath is coming into contact with the ice flowing off the continent is important to understanding how that ice might melt or move in the future.
On the trip home, I sat in the jump seat in the cockpit, a real treat! We flew back in to Punta Arenas over vegetated valleys, the landscape still marvelous but very different from how we had spent the day (see image).
Operation IceBridge Antarctica ramps up for a second year of ice surveys. Originating from Chile, a series of airborne missions will be flown almost daily from the airbase in Punta Arenas. Using a DC-8 jet airliner, the flights will run up to 11 hours each as they cross Drake’s Passage and the Southern Ocean to reach their destinations of monitoring Antarctic sea ice, the Antarctic peninsula and the western edges of the continent, before returning back to Chile each night. Flights will include some low altitude (~1,500 ft.) flights, and a few high altitude flights (~35,000 ft.). For this season we will re-fly some of last year’s lines as well as adding some new locations to the flight plans. One area to be resurveyed is an area of ongoing change – the Pine Island Glacier. This year the project design includes flying further back over the major trunk of the glacial ice stream in order to better understand the broader glacier dynamics. The sea ice flights are also of interest to the science community since Antarctic sea ice, unlike Arctic sea ice, is actually growing in extent. Developing a better understanding of why this might be occurring is extremely important to understanding the full Antarctic climate dynamics.
The instruments on the plane include laser to map and identify surface changes (Laser Vegetation Imaging Sensor [LVIS] & Airborne Topographic Mapper [ATM]), radar to penetrate through the snow/ice and image below providing information on the bedrock support and internal ice characteristics, and gravity to measure the size and shape of any ocean water filled cavities at the outlets of some of the main fast-moving glaciers. Before embarking on the actual mission, test flights must be flown to check each instrument. The five-hour test flights cruise over and around the Mojave desert, with different flight lines planned to test different instruments. To me the most exciting was a ‘pitch and roll’ over Lake Mead for the LVIS scanning instrument to collect surface topography data. The pitch is like putting the plane on a seesaw and tipping it forward and backward – which feels very impressive, and shows up in the vertical acceleration felt by the gravimeter and the butterflies in my stomach! The roll maneuver involves flipping the plane side to side (although not all the way over), and looks very impressive out the window! The instruments performed well so we move on to Chile.
The DC-8 carries 40 passengers and the seats are pretty big, so after a comfortable long-haul flight we spend Wednesday setting up the ground station – a hut where LVIS, ATM and gravity all have GPS antennae set up outside – and getting the gravimeter ready to measure. Our gravity team includes Jim Cochran, and me from Lamont and Kevin and Sean from the Sanders gravity group. Because the gravimeter must stay plugged in at all times, by NASA guidelines it must be monitored round the clock. We switch on and off this duty and every six hours swap generators and refuel. Easy. However the wind is blowing 76 km/hr, and gusting to 94 km/hr, so walking out to the plane is a challenge. The good thing about Punta Arenas is that there are not many things blowing around – anything not tied down blew away a long time ago!
On Friday, we decided to revisit an area we had already been to. This section covers the contact between the Bushveld rocks (green, colors as seen on the map) and the leptite (purple), granophyre (yellow) and granite (pink) rocks that we are interested in.
What the map doesn’t show is topography. Pink granite can be very resistant, meaning it doesn’t weather away as much as other rocks, forming very steep cliffs. We hiked for some time up steep valleys without quite reaching the top. On the way, I think we met just about every type of pricker bush South Africa has to offer.
The day was long, but came with a reward. On Friday night we had a large “braai,” or barbeque, with some of the farmers who helped us gain access to the lands. We ate chicken, lamb chops, t-bone steaks, a type of sausage made from kudu meat and “putupap,” a crumbly type of maize meal with the texture of coucous. One local farmer also brought fresh “amassi,” boiled, unpasturized milk that is left to sit in yogurt culture overnight. The result is a tangy/sour thin drinking yogurt. I thought it was delicious, but most of the farmers dislike it. I was especially grateful for the feast because Friday was my birthday.
We woke the next morning and headed to the top of the plateau to collect more lava samples and try to finish the section we started on Friday. There is a town directly on top of the valley that we were hiking the day before, so we decided to drive there and see if we could find the rest, from the top this time. Thankfully we were successful.
While we were sampling, some local children grew curious about what we were doing and followed us as we worked. On previous trips, Ed and I have carried a Polaroid camera with us so that we can take pictures of the children and give them aways. The kids are always amazed and delighted to see themselves in the photos. Today we used up our final packs of film, and because Polaroid stopped manufacturing it last year, we won’t be able to do this in the future.
On Tuesday we drove to the Steelpoort River Valley, about a hundred kilometers away. Work on a new dam and road has begun since we were here last, in 2006 and 2007. Once it’s finished, the dam will flood much of our field area, submerging some of the rocks we are studying. It’s a good thing we collected some when we did. The project will bring running water to the Sekhukhune villages, where most people still rely on outhouses and water delivered in drums.
To build the dam, the department of water affairs is buying up the surrounding farms but ownership is not always clear. Electric fences and locked gates line much of this land and on our first day of sampling, we had to contact both the farmers and the department of water affairs to ask for access. We also notified the district magistrate and local police to be safe.
In this region, we’re studying how Bushveld Complex rocks were intruded, or thrust, into “country rock,” a mix of granite, granite-lavas called granophyres, and other lavas we were sampling earlier in the week. My research suggests that the lavas and possibly the granophyre originated in the Bushveld Complex. In that case, the Bushveld would not have been intruded into these rocks. The contact among these layers is particularly important for us in testing this hypothesis while we are here.
Today we slogged up a valley of thorny trees where the Bushveld, granophyre, granite and lavas have all been mapped. At one point, while stopping for water, we heard loud barking – almost like a dog. I worried it might be an angry animal. We never caught a glimpse but figured out later it was probably a bushbuck, similar to a deer.
On our hike we found a black rock with pink cross-sections of feldspar, probably lamprophyre, the rock that cross-cuts the rocks we are studying and that may be related to a younger magmatic event in this area. Eventually, we locate a place where Bushveld rocks are touching leptite, a rock formation that has been heated, melted and recrystallized. The leptite in this area has pink veins of granophyre surrounding what may be sedimentary rocks. If you squint, you can almost imagine the granophyre melting into the grey blobs of sedimentary rock.
In the coming days, we hope to visit more areas with this type of contact to collect samples that will tell us how the chemistry is changing from one place to another.
We started the morning with breakfast and shopping for lunch provisions. We bought a large bag of oranges grown in the groves that surround this region for the equivalent of $1.50, along with cheese and, of course, biltong. The butcher offered many kinds of biltong, from the shaved, proscuitto-like variety to the serious cowboy jerky type. We stocked up on two varieties–chili bites and cabanossi–and headed for the road.
The lava flows we are studying are more than two billion years old yet some of their structures are still intact. The lava in one, the Kwaggasnek formation, is full of frozen air bubbles.
Another, the Schrikkloof, shows how the lava once flowed. Geologists named these lavas in the 1990s. In Afrikaans, a “kwagga” is a cross between a donkey and zebra, now extinct while “nek” implies a valley. “Schrik” is Afrikaans for fright while “kloof” means cliff. The geologists who mapped this area were apparently chased by a rhino while doing their work.
On our third day, traveling down a deserted, gravel road we got a flat. Fortunately, we had a spare which we used to drive to the next town to repair the original. It’s a good thing we did. By the time we reached our destination, our spare was also flat. After fixing both tires, we were back on the road to collect more samples.
Heading home to our lodge, we saw several animals through the fence: an ostrich with skinny white legs, a small herd of impala – smallish antelope – and springbok, similar to impala but with short pointy horns on their heads. Close to the road were kudu, which are twice the size of deer with white stripes on their side, curly horns and white tails. We also saw warthogs and wildebeests. Apparently dusk is the time to observe wildlife. Maybe they enjoy the sunset as much as we do?
On Saturday morning, Ed and I left Pretoria for the next phase of our trip: field work near the Loskop Dam in Mpumalanga Province where a large volcano once existed about two billion years ago. No one has been able to find where this ancient volcano stood but lava flows in the area suggest there was once volcanic activity. We will be collecting rocks and analyzing their structure to piece the story together.
On our way, we passed through Witbank, one of South Africa’s largest coal-mining operations. From the road, we spotted the coal plants’ big cooling towers as well as coal trucks parked along the road.
The Loskop dam area where we will be working for the next several days is more mountainous than Pretoria, with cliffs and rolling hills. The dam is also a spectacular structure that has created a large lake where crocodiles and hippos like to hang out. Unfortunately, the extensive mining in this region, at Witbank and the Bushveld Complex, has taken an ecological toll. Acid from the mines has drained into the lake, gnawing away at the bones of the crocodiles living there. Only juvenile crocodiles live there now.
One lava formation that we will be studying is called the Damwal, or “Dam Wall.” Nearby are several game reserves where Impala, Kudu, Zebra, and Wildebeest are raised. The game keepers have warned us about the leopards that live in some of the surrounding mountains and valleys. We’ve been told about a wild leopard breeding area in the valley across the river where animal carcasses are often found dangling from the trees.
Luckily for us, a tall wire fence lines most of the road where we are working and the only animals we’ve seen so far are baboons. We typically sample along the road, not out of laziness but because this is where the rock is most exposed. (Road building often involves blasting away rock, creating fresh surfaces that have not been exposed to weathering for very long.) It is much easier to collect here than to dig through layers of sediment or hammer away at boulders.
After a morning lecture about the Bushveld Complex and the processes of concentrating ores in magma bodies, Ed and I had to go to the University of Pretoria for Thursday afternoon. I was invited to give a lecture and we were able to have some very interesting conversations about Bushveld research with the people who have been working on it for many years.
While we were gone, Natasha, Jay and Chris helped the teachers develop presentations for sharing the material they learned this week with other teachers. Nearly all said they would start incorporating the material into their lesson plans immediately. Each teacher sees 200 to 300 students per day. With 20 teachers in our workshop, this means that 4,000 to 6,000 students will potentially benefit. If the teachers pass on this knowledge to other teachers, the impact could be even greater.
Friday was the last day of our workshop. The teachers gave their presentations and we gave each one a certificate for participating. We have had so many great discussions about geology, education, global economies, global politics, and so much more. I have learned so much from each one of them. The teachers also had presents for us–a vuvuzela and South African flag and futbol scarf for each of us. Our day ended with singing, clapping and smiling.
We woke up Wednesday morning to find out that all unionized government workers, including public school teachers, were on strike. All schools were shuttered and we worried that no one would show up for our workshop.
But we arrived at class to find all of our teachers present. They told us this was a once in a lifetime opportunity and they didn’t want to miss a moment.
For the day’s activities we traveled to the Cullinan diamond mine, where one of the world’s largest diamond—the Star of Africa—was discovered. With help from a Cullinan tour guide, Ed and I discussed how diamonds form deep in the Earth. The mine is still active today and we watched as rock was transported to the surface to be crushed and washed for diamond separation. This sparked a discussion about the types of careers that are available in the mining industry – everything from geologists to engineers to miners to doctors.
After the trip, we talked about other potential field trips and how to plan a teaching curriculum around them. One major reason I went into geology was to be out in the field exploring. Field trips are a great way to teach students to observe the world around them and gain a deeper understanding of the subject material.
Our teaching workshop continued Tuesday with a lecture about mineral resources and their economic importance. South Africa has abundant platinum and gold but also lesser-known elements like vanadium, chromium, and manganese. Vanadium and chromium, important to the steel industry, are found predominantly in the Bushveld Complex where our research is focused. Chromium gives steel much of its strength while vanadium stabilizes it to prevent expansion and contraction, allowing oil pipelines in Alaska and Russia, for instance, to resist cracking during extreme temperature swings.
Later that day I gave lectures on the formation of coal and gold, two of South Africa’s leading resources. The country gets more than 75 percent of its energy from coal and more than 40 percent of the gold mined on Earth has come from the Witwatersrand deposit near Johannesburg. Some estimate that more than 50 percent of the world’s reserves still remain here. In fact, the discovery of the ‘Rand’ deposit is what led to Johannesburg’s founding. The South African currency, the rand, is named for this gold deposit.
The teachers seemed to especially appreciate Chris Emdin’s discussion of how to engage students in the classroom–here students are called “learners” – to explore the material on their own terms. South Africa has 11 official languages. While all formal education and exams are done in English, English is almost never the student’s first language. This makes science especially challenging to teach. Chris showed the teachers one activity for helping students translate vocabulary words across English, science, their native language and slang. This way the students can incorporate the words they hear in class into their lives.
During the morning session one teacher told me that he had gone through five textbooks the night before searching for text on plumes, or hot spots. My lecture the previous day had discussed how islands like Hawaii, Iceland, and Reunion – off the coast of Madagascar – form from magma rising deep from Earth’s mantle. The teacher told me that in Afrikaans there is no word for “plume” and that none of his textbooks included it. He asked me for a definition and some pictures and said he would approach the Afrikaans textbook publishers in Johannesburg about including the term in their next editions.
The workshop that we are here leading is designed to help South Africa high school teachers make geology come alive for their students. We want to share basic concepts, such as how rocks and minerals form, but also provide activities and materials that can make the concepts more accessible.
In planning the workshop, we outlined basic geologic themes that we wanted to get across: geologic time, plate tectonics and the rock cycle. As the “themes ambassador,” I’ll be giving lectures on all three topics on the first day of the workshop.
It was an exhausting first day but rewarding. The high school teachers were so engaged and asked so many great questions that both of my lectures went significantly over the time limit. We discussed how teaching geologic time can conflict with religious teaching, the formation of hot spots and how volcanoes can impact climate. After the first lecture, Jay shared some simple activities around plate tectonics and plate motions that the teachers could reproduce in their classrooms.
After the rock cycle lecture, Jay hosted a show-and-tell with our New York City rocks. He explained to the teachers that he typically gets his rocks for free at city construction sites. Usually the construction companies pay people to haul the rocks away so workers are happy to let Jay take as many as he wants. The teachers clapped and applauded when he handed out our samples of Manhattan schist, a metamorphic rock, Palisades sill, an igneous rock, and New Jersey arkose, a sedimentary rock, for them to take back to their classrooms. He also distributed a map showing where the rocks were collected and discussed how the teachers could make a similar map for rocks in their area.
It was a great first day and I’m looking forward to a fun and educational week.