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

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Painting a glacier?

The painting team approaching the peak of Chalon Sombero, Peru
From here
Lipaca, Peru, is a village high (5000 meters) in the mountains of Peru being devastated by the demise of nearby glaciers. The people, and their alpacas, have relied on water from glaciers that have now disappeared.  In an experiment, Eduardo Gold, and the foundation "Peru Glaciers" are whitewashing the rocks with a mixture of water, sand and lime to try to change the local albedo and restore the glaciers. The principal is simple: the natural local rocks are black. They absorb sunlight and heat up, a property described by the "albedo." The higher the albedo, the more sunlight absorbed. Gold postulates that by painting the rocks white, the albedo can be reduced. Less sunlight is absorbed, the rocks are cooler, and the glaciers may return.  Using a hand-held measure of albedo, he shows a difference of temperature of the rocks of 30 F between black and white rocks. Then, as seeming proof of this concept, grabs a handful of ice out of the cracks between the rocks, and it does appear that water is flowing where, according to the local people, it hasn't flowed for awhile.

The rocks are painted by an amazing effort of throwing whitewash on rocks one bucket at a time--a hardy people carrying one bucket at a time over rock by rock on this mountainous terrain!  So far, 15,000 square meters have been covered with whitewash. Sounds impressive? It is, when viewed by rock by rock, but it's only three times the area of a football field.  Gold estimates that it will take three BILLION square meters, or 500,000 football fields, to restore a glacier here. the cost would be 1.5 billion over 5 years, a huge sum for a small village in Peru. The UN has given him a startup grant to pursue the project.

But, carrying this further--I never doubt the ingenuity of the human brain. Given proposals to load the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide to create a yellow haze to reflect sunlight, isn't it logical to think that someone will propose that if six billion people were throw just a few buckets each of whitewash on our fields, farms, and mountains we could cool the globe??  .....definitely need to think about this...

Monday, November 21, 2011

9,627 feet and counting--Shell sets new deep water drilling record.

Shell Oil has posted this graphic of the Perdido well compared to other
wells in the Gulf of Mexico. Note the progression from shallow to deep over
the past 30 years.
According to the Houston Chronicle, Shell Oil Company has announced that it is producing oil from a well 9,627 feet below the surface, drilling through 8,000 feet of water and another 1,627 feet of sediment and rock. This depth is more than six times the height of the Empire State Building.  The record broke the old record by 271 feet. BP and Chevron also have investment shares in this well (37.5% and 27.5% respectively). The well is 200 miles out in the Gulf from Houston. It serves three fields: Great White, Tobago, and Silvertip). At peak production, it can produce 100 kboe/d, which I assume means 100,000 barrels of oil equivalent per day. The Tobago field, where the record was broken, is the world's deepest subsea completion.

A major part of the Perdido "spar" was constructed in Finland, and it took an 8,200 mile journey to Texas over a three month period in 2008. The spar is 555 feet long, attached to the sea floor.  The drilling and production platform was constructed on top of the spar.  About 270 people live on the platform and an "adjacent floating hotel (a flotel)." There are 22 vertical access wells from the spar.

Equally impressive is that the well is several miles away from the Perdido drilling and production that serves it, and other wells that are up to seven miles away.  The oil has to flow along an incline on the sea floor before being pumped vertically to the platform. Shell says that the reservoir is a low-ressure reservoir which, I assume, means that it's mostly oil and not gas. The low pressure made it necessary for engineers to install a system of electrical pumps in the seabed to help get the oil to the surface, a technology that didn't exist when Shell purchased the lease in 1996.

A bit of an alarm bell went off when I got to the end of the article.  According to Don Van Nieuwenhuise of the University of Houston, producing from this depth is pushing up against the limits of safety equipment which is designed, only recently, to be used in up to 10,000 feet of water.  Well control equipment has been designed or redesigned for this limit in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon accident last year.  Ven Nieuwenhuise says "They are getting real close to the limit of what we can do safely." To which, the shell spokesman, Jaryl Strong, replies "There are a number of safety innovations built into the Perdido platform to accomodate the environment it is in, in terms of the great depths and long distance from shore. Safety was the No. 1 priority."

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Art of Science

"Two fish swimming side-by-side"
Photo by Brigitt Bosehitsch, Peter Dewey
and Alexander Smits
Today the New York Times posted a beautiful collection of pictures in which images from science and technology are presented artistically. These are from the Princeton University Art of Science Competition. My favorite is #10 shown on the left, "Two Fish Swimming Side-by-Side," which shows vortices spinning off of two fins (bottom of the photo) flapping in-phase. Water loaded with hydrogen nanobubbles is flowing from the bottom to the top past the fins. The stripes of bubble-containing and bubble-free water shows how the vortices are created and propagate away from the fins.

NASA Terra MODIS image
Vortex streets are common in the oceans and atmosphere. Here's a Terra MODIS image of one formed when the clouds over the ocean are disturbed by an obstacle, in this case Madeira Island.  A second interesting feature in this photo is the pattern of the clouds in general. There are roughly hexagonal cells of air. These form when the air is heated at the base (or cooled at the top). Warm air rises in the centers and sinks around the edges. This pattern frequently arises when you heat a pot of water on the stove, and is called Rayleigh-Bernard convection.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

New Madrid Fault: To Break or Not to Break?

Geophysicist Seth Stein, described in the Nature
article as "a hyper-intelligent version of George Costanza,
the ever-complaining character from the television show

With a title reminiscent of a best selling science book "How I killed Pluto, and Why it Deserved it," Nature today has featured "Seth Stein: The quake killer." In spite of the impression you might get from the article and from this picture, Seth does have a great sense of humor! 

The quake that he's killed is the feared future quake on the Reelfoot fault in the New Madrid region of the 1811-1812 earthquakes.  Seth adamantly opposes the established position of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) which puts the probability of a large earthquake there as high as the regions along the West Coast and Alaska. The article, by Richard Monastersky, in this week's Nature, is long and well done (thank the world for great science writers!). Stein makes several arguments, the strongest being that surveys across this region with Global Positioning System (GPS) instruments show no evidence that strain is accumulating in advance of future quakes. Stein has been monitoring the region for the past 20 years. Another argument that he makes is that there is no topography to speak of in the region, topography that would be expected if there was a long history of faulting. 

USGS earthquake hazard map
For a long time the earthquakes that occurred here in 1811-1812 have been assigned a magnitude between 7.8 and 8.4, which would make them bigger than any earthquakes in the history of the mainland U.S. (Alaska has had a bigger quake). However recent work not only by Stein, but by USGS and other geologists as well, now have downgraded these to a magnitude between 6.8 and 7.0, a factor of twenty five times less energetic.

The faults in this area are hundreds of millions of years old. But what reactivated those faults and triggered those quakes. Stein's idea, with Roy van Arsdale, is that they are responses to the unloading of about 12 meters of sediment by erosion from the Mississippi River during the 16,000-18,000 years since the end of the last ice age. Reduction of pressure by removal of that weight altered the stresses along the old faults enough to reactivate those faults in the region that are ready to go. However, once a fault breaks, there is not enough stress in the region to trigger another big quake along it. The seismic activity would end on this fault, but other faults in the area could still be under stress. A bottom line is that the big picture should focus on a broad area of faults, not simply on the New Madrid area itself.

The implications are not trivial.  Reinforcement of old buildings in this part of the country is an expensive proposition, and whether you have to reinforce for a magnitude 6.8 or magnitude 8.4 earthquake makes a huge difference in the cost.

Stein has written a trade-science book "Disaster Deferred: How New Science is Changing our view of Earthquake Hazards in the Midwest." It's a great read!

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Asteroid 2005 YU55 is NOT Armageddon!

Radar image of 2005 YU55 in April 2010
Armageddon was a 1998 thriller movie based on a Texas-sized asteroid heading toward the earth, which would then be saved by Holllywood heros sent to nuke the rock (which would simply create a lot of smaller destructive asteroids still headed toward us! Asteroid 2005 YU55 is not as big as Texas, only the size of an aircraft carrier (400 m diameter), and it's heading for closest approach tonight (Tuesday, November 8th at 23:28 UT (5:28 CDT). It will come inside the orbit of the Moon, about 85% of the distance between the Earth and Moon. The asteroid was discovered at the University of Arizona's Lunar and Planetary Laboratory on December 28, 2005. Objects this size come by about every 30 years.

According to Jay Melosh at Purdue, the asteroid would create a crater 6.3 km across, 518 m deep, and deposit the energy equivalent to a magnitude 7 eartquake. YU will pass close to Venus in 2029 and the exact details of that encounter will determine how close to the earth it will come in 2041.

JPL has a small-body database browser here that allows you to visualize the orbit, but the site is, at this time a few hours before the encounter, overloaded. We're not going to see it in gray, rainy Urbana tonight, but amateur observers in Europe and on the East Coast have a great chance. This is the first near asteroid for which observers have had advance warning and been gearing up to make radar, visual and infrared observations. With 5-meter radar observation, they are hoping to create a detailed 3-D image of its shape and surface.

I'll update the photos as they are released after the encounter.

Monday, November 7, 2011

North Korea's Mountain of Doom! Volcanoes and international science

View into the crater of Mount Paektu, a ka Changbai,
from the North Korean side. The staircase is several hundred
meters long, descending to a unique research base.
Photo by R. Stone/Science magazine
Rarely does an article in the staid peer review journal, Science, cause me to gasp! But a "NewsFocus" article*** in this week's issue by Richard Stone is so well written and informative, and the many themes woven through it are so impressive, that it did make me gasp!  It appeared this week--an intriguing description of an international collaboration working to determine the eruption potential, and schedule, for Mount Paektu, North Korea. North Korea and active volcanoes? China and active volcanoes? A shared active volcano on their border? A volcano that has at least two names and challenged the prestigious journal to figure out whether to call it by its Chinese name or its North Korean name? (The volcano ruled--two thirds of it is in China, so it's referred to in this article by its Chinese name, Changbai.)

From a combination of historical records and ash layers, it appears that Changbai wakes up every 100 years or so, the last time in 1903. Rather alarmingly, about 1000 years ago, the volcano had an eruption that was one of the largest of the past few thousand years, rivaling the 1815 eruption of Tambora in Indonesia. It spread ash over 33,000 square kilometers of northeast China and Korea, and dumped 5 centimeters of ash on Japan. (So that this post is not taken as being alarmist, there is no indication that an eruption is imminent.) I'm not going to dwell on the volcanology here, perhaps at a later date. In a nutshell, on a Volcanic Explosivity Index (VEI) of 8, only a few 7's have occurred in the last 11,500 years, and the eruption of Changbai 1000 years ago was one of them. It erupted nearly 100 cubic kilometers of ash.

I think that the importance of this Science article is the spotlight that it shines on science as a way to transcend political and philosophical borders.  The North Koreans and Chinese have already established a collaboration to monitor this dangerous volcano, and in September, they brought in two westerner geologists from the U.K. to visit the site. They are James Hammond from Imperial College, and Clive Oppenheimer from Cambridge. They were accompanied by Richard Stone, the author of the article. This "unprecedented encounter was facilitated by two nongovernmental organizations: Pyongyang International Information Center on New Technology and Economy, or PIINTEC, based in Pyongyang, and the Environmental Education Media Project in Beijing." The three were impressed with the North Korean scientists and facilities, and with the budding collegiality--  Chinese scientists may be doing research at Paektu in North Vietnam next summer. The deputy director general of DPRK's Earthquake Administration has said "we welcome scientists with open arms" (to build up the capability to monitor the volcano and forecast eruption scenarios." Hats off to all who made this work, including Hans-Ulrich Schmincke who managed to get in there in 1993!

Over the past centuries, there have been only a few ways to transcend the political and military tensions that are all to prevalent and dangerous in the world. They have been (1) arts and culture; (2) humanitarian aid; and (3) science, particularly in the area of natural hazards.  For another program, very relevant to "Mount Doom", take a look at Cities on Volcanoes, a Commission of the International Association of Volcanology and Chemistry of the Earth's Interior (IAVCEI).

***Vigil at North Korea's Mount Doom, by Richard Stone, Science, 334, November 4, 2011, pp. 584-588.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Earthquake in Oklahoma!

Seismogram posted this morning by
the Oklahoma State Geological Survey
Late Saturday night, the biggest earthquake in history, magnitude 5.6, hit Oklahoma  about half way between Oklahoma City and Tulsa. It was preceded by a 4.8 earthquake that morning, itself the third-strongest in Oklahoma history. The big earthquake was about the same size as the one that hit the east coast in August.They were a few miles apart and neither caused injuries or death, although some damage is being reported--buckling of roadways, damaged chimneys, interior damage to houses. The quake was felt in nine states. There have been more than seventy aftershocks as of early Sunday morning. The epicenter was four miles east of Sparks. The morning earthquake was shallow, 3.1 kilometers, and the evening earthquake deeper at 5 kilometers.  Both quakes were very near a place where a magnitude 4.3 earthquake occurred on February 27, 2010. They are on the Wilzetta fault, which is also called the Seminole uplift.

The first reported earthquake in Oklahoma occurred in September 1918, according to a USGS summary of earthquake history in the state, and earthquakes have not been uncommon in the state. Earthquakes have increased in frequency from about 2009 to the present and there is speculation, though no agreement, on the cause of this increase. The Seminole Uplift is a broad subsurface feature about 50 miles wide and over 75 miles long. It consists of a number of anticlines and "faulted noses" (oil company jargon) that host oil, and the uplift has been a prolific oil source. Many of the wells drilled in the 1920's to 1940's are still producing today and it is likely that there will continue to be speculation on the role of drilling and oil production in causing shallow earthquakes such as those that occurred this weekend.

Here's a nice article on the history of oil production in Oklahoma. The geology librarian, Lura Joseph, at the University of Illinois has created a resource of earthquake and tsunami information here.

Many of us can't hear the word "Oklahoma" without hearing it as "Oooooooooo-klahoma..." from the great musical by Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein, set outside the town of Claremore in 1906, one year before Oklahoma was granted statehood.  The discovery of abundant oil there in 1889 and successive years contributed significantly to the granting of statehood. It's a great fun musical in case you haven't seen it!


They couldn't pick a better time to start in life
It ain't too early and it ain't too late
Starting as a farmer with a brand new wife
Soon be living in a brand new state
Brand new state, gonna treat you great!

Gonna give you barley, carrots and pertaters
Pasture fer the cattle, spinach and termayters
Flowers on the prarie where the June bugs zoom
Plen'y of air and plen'y of room
Plen'y of room to swing a rope
Plen'y of heart and plen'y of hope

Where the wind comes sweeping down the plain
Where the waving wheat
Can sure smell sweet
When the wind comes right behind the rain

Every night my honey-lamb and I
Sit alone and talk
And watch a hawk
Making lazy circles in the sky

We know we belong to the land
And the land we belong to is grand
And when we say Yeeow!
Ayipioeeay! Yeeow!
We're only saying "You're doin' fine Oklahoma"
Oklahoma O-K


Saturday, November 5, 2011

The birth of a big iceberg, Antarctica

Rift developing across the pine Island Glacier
From bbc.co.uk
About every ten years the Pine Island Glacier (PIG) on the West Antarctica coast sheds a giant iceberg. The last event was in 2001, and so it's time. Sure enough, "right on schedule" a 30 km long crack is developing across the tongue of the glacier, and a 880 sq. kilometer (300 sq. mile) iceberg is expected to break loose within a few months.  Although scientists are not attributing this to climate change because of the history of such events, there has been a significant thinning of the PIG, which may be.  It is about 60-100 m down to the water surface, but the crack may extend underwater to a depth of 500 m.

Typically glaciers like this end in ice shelves that are grounded against the sea floor near the coast.  However warm seawater has been eating away at the underside of the PIG shelf, so that it has been floating free. This allows a feedback in which more and more melting occurs.  A floating ice shelf is much more vulnerable to breaking off than a grounded one.

The Pine Island glacier is a major outlet for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, and a potential significant contributor to long-term sea-level rise. It drains about 10% of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet. It is a fast-moving glacier, and its motion has been accelerating recently. Between 1974 and 2007 the speed increased by 73%. By the end of 2007, the PIG had a negative mass balance of 46 gigatonnes per year (that is, more water was going into the sea than was being replaced by snow), which would translate to 0.13 mm global sea level rise per year.  Once this piece breaks off, the snout of the PIG will be the furthest back since monitoring of it started in the 1940's. It will be interesting for scientists to monitor it for the next decade to see if it follows its old pattern of growing back out, or stalls.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

The "seven billionth baby" and Bangkok flooding

Bangkok flooding about 1900
LL/Roger Viollet as published in the Wall Street Journal
The impact of natural disasters is changing as more and more people are crowding onto the planet. Fittingly, yesterday was the day that the United Nations has projected that the seven billionth baby will be born somewhere on the planet. Four babies are born about every second.  The soaring population means that more and more people are crowding into livable spaces, and particularly into big cities as they seek work. Bangkok is no exception.

It has a long history of flooding. In 1785 there was a flood of nearly 15' height, and one of 10' height in 1819. In 1917 all roads were underwater for a month and in 1942 a 5' high flood stayed for two months. The current flood is the biggest since the 1942 flood, although there have been significant floods in 1975, 1980, 1982, 1983, 1995, and 1996. Over the centuries, the city had developed a large system of canals to drain the water to the ocean, but as industrialization and modernization many of these canals, including the one in the picture, were paved over to make streets and living and factory space.

Bangkok is sinking at a rate that may bring it to sea level within decades, possibly as early as 2030. However, there is one major difference between Bangkok and cities like Venice or Amsterdam that are at or below sea level. These last two cities average about 32" of rain per year, Bangkok receives nearly double that rain, 57". This year there has already been 86". These rains are from the rainy season monsoon. The economic impacts of the floods this year are serious. One third of the country is flooded, 10% of the rice crop is gone, damage already exceeds $4 billion, and economic growth for next year will be reduced by 1-2%.  There are political implications as well--the Prime Minister,  Yingluck Shinawatra is new and inexperienced, having only taken office in July.  Although the normally politically polarized Thai's have unified remarkably under the stress of the floods, the opposition, which has close ties to the military, is calling for a state of emergency to be declared and for the military to take control. The Thai military is "not inexperienced" at launching coups d'etat. We are watching an intricate unfolding of natural hazards, economic and political interplays.