This blog provides commentary on interesting geological events occurring around the world in the context of my own work. This work is, broadly, geological fluid dynamics. The events that I highlight here are those that resonate with my professional life and ideas, and my goal is to interpret them in the context of ideas I've developed in my research. The blog does not represent any particular research agenda. It is written on a personal basis and does not seek to represent the University of Illinois, where I am a professor of geology and physics. Enjoy Geology in Motion! I would be glad to be alerted to geologic events of interest to post here! I hope that this blog can provide current event materials that will make geology come alive.

Banner image is by Ludie Cochrane..

Susan Kieffer can be contacted at s1kieffer at gmail.com

Wednesday, August 31, 2011

All the volcano webcams in the world

Here is a really neat site that has a list and links to all of the volcano webcams worldwide. It is from a subsite (?) there called Eruptions, a blog by Erik Klemetti, an assistant professor of geosciences at Denison University. I found it through a site that I like called "Big Think."

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

NTSB has assigned blame in the San Bruno, CA, pipeline blast

A few days ago, I did a post regarding the seriously bad state of the pipelines in our infrastructure. By coincidence (??? I think, but maybe not) the National Transportation and Safety Board (NTSB) laid the blame for that explosion on the pipeline owner Pacific Gas and  Electric (PG&E) as well as on regulators. It accused PG&E of "exploiting weaknesses in a lax system of oversight, and government agencies that placed a blind trust in operators to the detriment of public safety."

The immediate cause of the explosion was a faulty weld. But, they found widespread deficiencies in PG&E's safety procedures, and federal and state oversight "ineffective." The accident is being called a failure of an entire system of checks and balances.  Why does this remind me of the Gulf Coast Deepwater Horizon disaster?

A synopsis of the report is on the NTSB website, and a full report is to be posted in a few weeks.

Truly cool! Black hole devours a star!

Black hole just about finished munching on wayward star!
NASA Swift satellite. NASA Goddard Space Flight Center
Terrestrial natural disasters don't seem so bad after you watch what happened to the wayward star that got too close to a black hole about 3.9 billion years ago! 

Last March 28 scientists on NASA's Swift satellite mission detected flares at Xray wavelengths coming from a black hole, now designated as Swift J1644+57. They were initially assumed to be from a gamma-ray burst, short blasts of high-energy radiation that are associated with the death of a massive star and the birth of a black hole. However, the emission from this area continued to increase, radio wavelength waves were detected, and astronomers began to think that a star was undergoing tidal disruption.  By March 30, the source was located on a faint galaxy that proved that the galaxy, the source of the X-rays and radio waves, and the event that produced the flares were linked.

(Great video with music, as well as the NASA press release, are here. I couldn't figure out how to get the video to play on this post.)

Most galaxies possess a central huge black hole, typically weighing millions of times the mass of our own sun. The star-gobbling black hole may be about twice the mass of the 4-million-solar-mass black hole in the center of our Milky Way galaxy. As a star gets too close to such an object, it is catastrophically stretched by tidal forces, and its gas falls into a disk swirling around the black hole. There it becomes heated to temperatures of millions of degrees, before being spit back out through funnels, defined by electric and magnetic fields. Matter moving at about 90% of the speed of light erupts along the black hole's spin axis.  One of these jets was pointing straight at the Earth, leading to the discovery in March.

As Zauderer, et al., say in the abstract to their Nature paper: "We conclude that we are seeing a newly formed relativistic outflow, launched by a transient accretion onto a million-solar-mass black hole." They point out that the relativistic outflow was not predicted for these events, so I guess that it's back to the drawing board for the astronomers!

References: Burrows, D.N., and many others, Relativistic jet activity from the tidal disruption of a star by a massive black hole, Nature, 476, 421-424, 2011.

Zauderer, B.A., and many others, Birth of a relativistic outflow in the unusual gamma-ray transient Swift J164449.3+573451, Nature, 476, 425-428, 2011.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Old gas pipelines, PG&E, and news reports

Explosion in San Bruno, CA, 2010.
Photo from here.
I was looking at the news this morning and spotted a headline "PG&E's $2.2 billion pipeline plan triggers outrage" in the Silicon Valley "MercuryNews.com." Hmmmmm, interesting I thought because I've become increasingly aware of the decaying state of our countries natural gas and water pipelines.  Last week, a water line broke at the corner of my street, and the repairmen commented that this was just an on-going problem--they are breaking all the time because they are old.

So, I thought, why can a plan to repair the aging natural gas pipelines cause outrage? Especially in Silicon Valley, the site of a massive explosion last year due to failed pipelines. Eight people died and 38 homes were destroyed in the 2010 explosion in San Bruno. In Texas, the major gas transmission lines were laid more than 40 years ago, and 25,000 of nearly 46,000 miles of transmission pipe are older than 1970, some dating back to the Great Depression.  These wind underground beneath homes and cities in some of the states most populated areas.

This plan, restricted to the Bay area, would replace at least 186 miles of pipe (wow--that's expensive per mile!), inspect 243 miles with robotic devises, and assess the strength of 783 miles.  It would cost $2.18 billion through 2014, of which $1.96 would be billed to PG&E's customers, and through 2014 the average residential gas customers monthly bill would rise from $1.93 to $47.16. Ooops, there's the source of outrage!

But, then I went to Bloomberg.com news where the headline was "PG&E to pay $2.2 billion to upgrade pipelines after San Bruno." It says that the utility will pay $1.4 billion in capital costs and $750 million in expenses and that "PG&E has applied for permission to pass some of the costs to customers. Shareholders will absorb $535 million." Gives a very different impression.

The Wall Street Journal says that the plan is to have a "$250 million rate increase in 2012  and subsequent increases of $30 million and $80 million in 2013 and 2014."  I assume that means that, relative to current rates, the increases will be $250, $280, and $360 million in those three years. or ????

I suppose that I should try to read the actual filing, but that's too much work on a Saturday.  Regardless of details, the decaying infrastructure problems in our country, and probably around the world, (roads, bridges, train tracks, water, gas) are enormous and they aren't going to be cheap to fix.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

And, there's no end in sight for the east coast...Hurricane Irene is taking aim

Hurricane Irene from space. NASA
(I'm having difficulty finding photos with times on them.)
UPDATE 8/28/11: CNN.com has reported that 3,000,000 people on the east coast are without power, and that the storm has now begun flooding New York City, which has closed many venues.  Wind speeds are up to 75 miles per hour.

UPDATE 8/29/11: Although the hurricane lost strength because it ran into wind shear as it propagated up the east coast, damage is estimated at up to $10 billion, and President Obama cautions that cleanup from this event will take a long time.

Hurricane, already a Category 3 hurricane, is due to travel up the east coast this weekend.  There is a video from NOAA here that traces its development up to the Category 2 state. At the moment (6:30 p.m. CDT) it has winds of 120 mph, and 200 miles (?) in diameter.

Update on 8/25: If it stays there for awhile, there is an excellent video animation of the progress of the hurricane up to 1:00 CDT here on CNN.com.

Already a huge storm, it is driving a huge amount of water ahead of it, and an excellent article in the Christian Science Monitor today discusses the surge problem.

The term "storm surge" refers to the bulge of water driven by the winds of the hurricane.  There are two sources of this bulge. One is the low pressure in the center of the storm in which atmospheric pressure is reduce and so the sea surface bulges up in response to the lower pressure. This accounts for a few percent of the surge. The vast bulk of the surge results from the large volume of counterclockwise circulating winds that drag the surface water along with them. This circulation puts the greatest surge in the upper-right-hand quadrant of the storm as viewed by satellite. 

8/27/11 Couldn't resist adding this cartoon
by Nate Beeler, The Washington Examiner
Although storm surge is determined, to first order, by the storm's speed, strength, and water depth, the geometry of local features, such as bays, estuaries, and coastal marshes, also matter. If aligned importunely, the surge can be amplified by the local geometry. In this article, for example, he reports that some of the worst surging is projected outside that upper-right-hand-quadrant in Cape Hattaras, at Pamilico Sound, which is on the left side of the track, because the Sound is located where the counterclockwise rotation can spin water down into it after it passes the Cape. It will be interesting to watch the next few days and see how the projections, and their uncertainties, play out.

If this was all that there was to the surge, then it would resemble--on a much longer time-scale--the inexorable onslaught of water that was witnessed when the tsunami came on-shore in Japan.  A steady prolonged rise, followed by a recession as the storm passes.  But that's only part of the story.  Unlike the tsunami, enormous waves ride on top of the bulge, battering like "aquatic sledgehammers." (I really like this writer, Pete Spotts!) This bodes ill for dwellings built on stilts close to the coast.

As was the case with Hurricane Katrina, barrier islands and coastal wetlands would blunt the impact of the waves and surges if they had not been so modified and compromised by development along the coasts.

It is interesting to compare Irene with some previous storms. Here's a link to a post that I did on "super-typhoon Megi" that hit the Philippines in October, 2010, last year. It explains some of the dynamics of these storms. Here is one on Cyclone Yasi that hit Australia in February, 2010. Both of these were larger storms than Irene--the post on Yasi has it superposed on the U.S. that you might find of interest to compare with the image at the left where Irene is superposed on the east coast.  Yasi was huge in comparison.   Cyclone Tracy was fairly small, but caused so much damage in Australia that the song, "Santa Never Made it into Darwin," by Bill Cate and Boyd Robinson that was used as fund-raiser for the reconstruction effort has become legendary in Australia! The post on Tracy has an image of it (very small dot that's easy to miss) compared to Super Typhoon Tip, which is the largest and most intense cyclone on record.
NASA image of Hurricane Irene
on Friday 8/26/11
Irene, on Friday 8/26NAS

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

And, a magnitude 5.8 on the East Coast! Excitement in D.C.!!

National Cathedral in D.C. closed temporarily for damage inspection
Photo from CNN.com
Toppled statue
Courtesy of the National Cathedral

Thanks to the magnitude 5.8 earthquake in the D.C. area today, we now know that there is a town called Mineral, Virgina! It had a population of 424 in the 2000 census, and is probably going to have a lot more people there tonight! During its heyday in the early part of the 20th century, there were 15 gold mines located within two miles of the town, as well as a zinc and lead mine. Mineral is only 5 miles from the epicenter of today's earthquake. It is 38 miles northwest of Richmond. According to the USGS, the quake was at a very shallow depth, 6 km, 3.7 miles (other estimates go up to 7 miles).

There is a neat video of the seismic waves from the quake crossing the IRIS seismometer array here. Gives a good feel for how long this earthquake was (>20 seconds).

Washington Monument
National Park Service
Numerous buildings in D.C. were evacuated, the metro and trains are apparently running slowly as they check for track damage. From witnesses on the ground, there are reports of a lot of people with broken bones because they jumped out of windows during the quake. Traffic disruptions are severe. Buildings at the Smithsonian are closed; schools closed the next day. Washington Monument closed after cracks discovered toward the top. Many buildings erected in the mid- 1800's require inspection. One of the funniest stories that I heard on NPR came out of the Geology Department at William and Mary.  They were having a faculty meeting when the earthquake struck, and instead of taking cover under tables as advised during earthquakes, they just sat and started at each other, unable to believe that this was happening!  Californians, meanwhile have some very predictable comments, such as "a tiny 5-point something"!

Seismicity map of eastern North America showing epicenters of
quakes from 1928-1981. From Zoback and Zoback 1981.
The most earthquake prone areas of the U.S. are Charleston, South Carolina, eastern Massachusettes, the St. Lawrence River area, and the central Mississippi River Valley.  I remember sitting in my office in Bolton, Ontario (northeast of Toronto) when an earthquake struck in the northeastern U.S. Because of hard, cold bedrock, waves from earthquakes here tend to spread further than equivalent quakes on the west coast.

Earthquakes occur in the eastern U.S. because ancient plate boundaries are being reactivated by today's stresses. During the past half billion years, the crust underlying the east coast has been the site of two major geologic episodes. Between ~450-250 million years ago, Africa collided with North America to form Pangea, the supercontinent.  Then, beginning about 200 million years ago, the present day Atlantic ocean began to form as Pangea broke up. About 200 million years ago, further rifting led to the opening of the present-day Atlantic.  This episode is referred to as the Mesozoic rifting event. Mesozoic rifts are exposed in rocks in Connecticut and Massachusettes and around the New york City area, and are believed to be buried beneath sediments along the continental margins of the eastern U.S. This summary taken from here.

Here's an interview with Rowena Lohman of Cornell in which she speculates on the role that glacial rebound may have east coast earthquakes.

And, here's an interview about the animals in the Washington Zoo that addresses the question about whether or not animals anticipate these events.

For a technical overview, see Zoback and Zoback, "State of Stress and Intraplate Earthquakes in the United States," Science, 213p. 96, 1981. Updated in M.L. Zoback and M. Zoback, "Lithosphere Stress and Deformation, Treatise on Geophysics, 6, 353-273, Editor-in-Chief, Gerald Schubert, Academic press, in publication.

Added 8/27/11: Here's the USGS analysis of the earthquake and a good Wiki article.

Magnitude 5.3 earthquake in Colorado today. Why?

A magnitude 5.3 earthquake in California might not attract much national attention, but one of this magnitude in Colorado did so today near Trinidad, a town very close to the border with New Mexico.  A precursor of magnitude 4.6 occurred about 6 hours before the main shock.  The earthquake was the largest in Colorado since 1973 when an earthquake hit the northwestern part about 50 miles north of Grand Junction. It's about 300 miles as the crow flies between these two sites. Today's earthquake caused rock slides and damaged a few homes.

Map of faults in Colorado that have last moved in
Quaternary (red) and Cenozoic (yellow) time.
Map produced by Colorado Geological Survey.
The description of the fault in the main text is
from the USGS earthquake site here.
Colorado has only one major fault, the Sange de Christo fault. Scarps in late Quaternary deposits are common along the northern part of the fault indicating that it's an active fault. In this area, it bounds the sharp tall Sange de Christo range. However, in the southern part near the New Mexico border, the topography is more subdued, the fault is discontinuous and is composed of en echelon strands. Scarps in Quaternary deposits are less common, but can be seen at the mouths of a few major drainages. The difference is pronounced enough to suggest that the two parts probably have different behaviors over the long term.

The cause of the earthquakes in southern Colorado has been the subject of much heated debate.  Earthquakes are not new in Colorado, a M6.6 having been recorded in 1882, at the peak of Colorado's mining era.  It was probably in the Front Range near Rocky Mountain National Park, caused damage in Denver, and was felt as far as Saline, Kansas, and Salt Lake City, Utah. However, extensive monitoring of earthquakes in this area did not begin until the early 1960's.

It is often speculated that coalbed methane operations have been the cause.  In these operations, wells are drilled and water is injected.  One well, for example, in the Raton Basin extends down to 4100 feet and in one year 2.5 million barrels of water were injected. Natural gas operators point out, however, that the injection activity is limited to 1-2 kilometers depth, much shallower than the likely depth of the earthquake focus. Colorado has had several episodes of earthquake onset that are directly associated with injection; more detailed information is here, from which I obtained the information above. The site referenced is the American Association of Petroleum Geologists; here is a NYTimes overview published 3 days ago.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Beautiful waves over the (formerly beautiful) Aral Sea

Clouds over the (turquoise) Aral Sea
NASA image MODIS on Aqua satellite, March 12, 2009

In the image above a series of waves spreads out over the Aral Sea, with the (left) boundary of the clouds conforming closely to the shape of the western shore of the Aral. As discussed in this NASA Earth Observatory post, clouds usually form when air rises over a mountain or other topographic high.  Air cools as it rises, and moisture can condense out into clouds.  When air flows down the other side of the mountain, it warms up and moisture evaporates, limiting clouds near the high axes of the mountains.

Before and after as labelled. From Wiki.
What could be causing the clouds around a sea? The most likely explanation is related to the fact that the Aral sea has been drying up, so that the water lies now in the deeper parts of the previously much larger basin. The Aral is a classic example of a sea affected by, and affecting, multiple nations: Kazakhastan, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, and the Soviet Union. At one time, the Aral was one of the four largest lakes in the world, with more than 1500 islands (the name means "Sea of Islands"). In the 1960's the rivers feeding it were diverted by irrigation projects, primarily in the Soviet Union, causing it to decline to 1/10 of its original size by 2010.

Because the lake has been shrinking, it is likely that the now-dry parts of the basin to the west are higher than the lake surface and causing the formation of the clouds.  Changes in wind speed as the wind came across dry land to the west, where it would have been slowed by vegetation, and flowed east over the smoother lake, where it could accelerate may have contributed to formation of the waves over the lake.

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

New footage of the Tohoku tsunami

I have posted a web site that has some video footage that I had not seen on my March 12, 2011, post. Search for "new 080911"

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Water on Mars.....Again?

Streaks on Horowitz (impact) Crater, Mars
The dark features are dubbed "recurring slope lineae" (RSL)
The tails of the arrows are about 20 meters in length.
The author of a new article** claiming liquid water on the surface of Mars, Al McEwen, a friend and colleague, quipped that he'd surely be hearing from his colleagues about "So you've discovered water on Mars for the thousandth time?"

An excellent animation of these features can be found in Richard Kerr's ScienceNow blurb "Is Mars Weeping Salty Tears?"

The features of interest, the dark lines in the photo, are narrow (0.5-5 meters) marks on steep (25-40 degree) slopes. Repeated images taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter HiRise instrument shows that these features appear when the warm season starts, grow downslope (toward the XXX in this photo), attaining lengths of 100 m.  When the warm season (250-300 K) passes, the marks fade; the orange streaks in the photo near the arrows may be older faded RSL's.

The RSL's only occur in the southern hemisphere, and between latitudes 32-48 S. They tend to form on equator-facing slopes. There are seven confirmed locations, and a couple dozen candidate sites.  They extend downslope from rocky areas (toward the upper right in the adjacent photo), attaining lengths of hundreds of meters. More than 1000 lineae may be present in a particular site.

Individual lineae may split or merge. They terminate on steep slopes, leading to the conclusion that the volume of material to form them is limited. Growth rates vary from 0-20 m/day on average. There can be no activity on some for weeks.

McEwen et al. consider a number of mechanisms, including CO2 sublimation, and conclude that the seasonal behavior strongly suggests surface expression of briny water.  The association with bedrock outcrops could indicate control of the subsurface migration of the fluids by the bedrock structure, or that the bedrock contains hygroscopic salt-rich lenses to provide the salts to lower the melting temperature of ice.  The text of the article examines other hypotheses in detail.

**McEwen et al., Seasonal Flows on Warm Martian Slopes, Science, 333(6043) 740-743, 2011. There may be hundreds to a thousand at one site.

Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Mega-masers and water reservoirs in the Universe; China invests in R and D

The mega-maser 12 billion light years away
Photo by Hubble Space Telescope 
For starters, I hope that you all have had a great summer, and thanks to those who checked in on this blog while it was in a "summer sleepy mode."  Hopefully my brain will gear back up for blogging as it gears back up for the fall semester!

I discovered a very gifted science writer, Meg Urry, chairman of the Physics Department at Yale.  She's also the director for the Yale Center for Astronomy and Astrophysics, and contributed a nice and very clear article on mega-masers to CNN.COM today.

Astronomers have discovered a huge reservoir of water in the distant volume of the universe.  It contains roughly 140 trillion times the volume of the oceans on Earth. Urry cracks the joke that astronomers don't refer to this reservoir of water like we might on earth, Lake NASA for example. It's called a "mega-maser." Masers amplify light into a powerful beam. The light, in this case, was emitted when the universe was about 450,000,000 years old, 10% of its current age.

Megamasers (it is spelled both with and without the hyphen) stimulate specific spectral lines, and are known to occur for hydroxyls (OH), water (H2O), formaldehyde (H2CO), and methine (CH) (note, not methane).  The word MASER stands for Microwave Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiaton.  A maser is the predecessor to lasers, which operate at optical wavelengths (Microwave is replaced by Light to get "LASER"). In these systems, atoms or molecules having different energy states may absorb a photon and move to a higher energy level, or the photon can stimulate emission of another photon of the same energy and cause a transition to a lower energy level. ((Note, see Wiki for this discussion). Masers were first built in a lab in the 1950's, subsequently an OH maser was discovered in 1965 in the plane of our Milky Way. The first evidence for an extragalactic maser was in 1973, and the first megamaser was discovered in 1982.  The history of this and definition of mega and kilo-masers is in the Wiki article on Masers.

Much of Urry's article is focused on pointing out that discoveries like this come from basic research, but that--over time--basic research has led to very practical applications that are relevant to our lives in general.  For example, she points out how the discoveries of atoms and the development of quantum mechanics led to our present electronic and computer technologies. These, in turn, fuel our present economy, and appear in our hospitals and affect our medical conditions and diagnoses.

Coincidentally, NPR had a very interesting story yesterday on China's goal of renewing its status as a scientific superpower, pointing out that it was "probably the world's earliest technological superpower," with the invention of the plow, the compass, gunpowder and block printing. However, science languished there for centuries. Until 1893, apparently, the Chinese didn't even have a word for "science"! In contrast, in May, the premier Wen Jiabao declared that "China cannot develop without developing science and technology." The government has set aside a pot of money to bring back academics who have been studying/working outside of China. So far, more than 3100 have been brought back, into tenured positions and research labs, generally with one-time bonuses of $150,000 per person. In contrast to a decade ago, when there was a substantial brain drain, now there is an abundance of scientists waiting to return. 80,000 Ph.D.s are apparently returning, and positions for them all are now getting scarce because of the number wanting to return.

Most tellingly, China's R and D spending is scheduled to rise from 1.7 percent in 2011 to 2.2 percent of GDP in 2015. Major foci are on nanotechnology, clean energy, and stem cell research. Although the absolute dollar amount is about 1/3 of what the US is spending, the investment in R and D in China is rapidly increasing.

And, reading to the end of the NPR article above, I came across a wild statement that the antics of one geologist "could be holding China back"!! "Leading geologist Duan Zhenhao was sacked after accusations he embezzled $1.5 million of research funding to spend on his three mistresses." My goodness..... (Even Science has gotten into reporting on this situation!)

Guess I'll go back to contemplating how mega-masers work!