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

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Bubbles in Beer, Dust in Air, and Why they Matter

I'm giving a talk this weekend at a meeting of the Jefferson Land Trust in Port Townsend. One of the points of the talk is that fluids of interest in geological processes can have some very unusual and unexpected properties. One example relates to the speed of sound in a liquid or gas.  The speed of sound in liquid water is about 1400 meters per second, basically a mile per second. That's fast compared to geological processes which typically have speeds less than a few hundred meters per second. But, if the liquid has gas bubbles, for example boiling water, the sound speed is dramatically depressed. Why? Consider first a simpler fluid than boiling water: beer. The sound speed (squared) is defined as the inverse of the compressibility*density.  Compressibility is "squishiness." Water isn't very squishy (as anyone who has done a belly flop off of a diving board knows), but if you add bubbles, things change (there's a reason that Olympic high-divers plunge into an aerated part of the pool). The density isn't affect much at all by the presence of small bubbles, but the squishiness is dramatically changed--the bubbly beer has almost got the squishiness of the bubbles. So, since the squishiness is in the denominator, the sound speed dramatically decreases--down to about 10 m/s. If the bubbles are steam in water, instead of air, there are other processes (condensation and evaporation of the steam as sound waves pass) the sound speed can be even lower, as low as 1 m/s. That means that if we walk at a pace of ~20 minutes per mile, and could walk through boiling water, we would be walking at Mach 2!!
     There's another situation in which low sound speeds can occur in geologic processes: dusty gases. The sound speed of a pure gas is inversely proportional to its molecular weight. The higher the molecular weight, the lower the sound speed: Helium ~ 970 m/s; Air ~340 m/s; Freon 12 ~150 m/s. I haven't done a lot of research on particle concentrations in dust storms, but in one study in Australia, concentrations of 10 mg/m3 for just the breathable particles were reported. If anyone wants to help convert this to mass fraction (mass ratio solids:vapor), help is welcomed!
     It is very difficult to determine particle loading in volcanic eruptions. Any sensors in the path of advancing gas/particle clouds are destroyed, but remote sensing techniques are improving.  The bottom line is that particle loading in destructive emissions are high compared to even desert dust storms, thus their destructiveness. These flows can be "internally supersonic," that is, supersonic inside themselves, but subsonic compared to atmospheric sound speeds (~340 m/s). Thus, they don't generate shock waves. The lateral blast at Mount St. Helens did not generate atmospheric shock waves. It did generate compression waves as the blast pushed on the atmosphere, and due to the complex structure of the atmosphere, these waves steepened into audible acoustic waves to the north, e.g., hear in Vancouver B.C.
     Bottom line: there are shocks and there are shocks. Some are inside these wierd geological flows, and others are in the domain of atmospheric sciences.

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Anatomy of a hurricane

Added October 6: Here's a nice site to track the projected path of the hurricane.

Here's a nice graphic from AccuWeather on the anatomy of a hurricane showing conditions likely to occur in the four quadrants. There is speculation that this may be one of the rare hurricanes that loops around back on its earlier track, but the models are changing very rapidly.
     As Hurricane Matthew bears down on Haiti, it is worth reflecting on why Haiti seems to suffer so badly from hurricanes and floods. It may or may not see a disproportionately large number of hurricanes. Prior to 2008, only six major Category 3 or stronger hurricanes had struck Haiti since 1851. Cleo in 1964 killed 192 people; Flora in 1963 killed 8000. But in 2008, four storms (Fay, Gustav, Hanna and Ike) struck.
     However, given these storms, Haiti suffers a disproportionate amount of flooding (see Jeff Masters article here).  Charcoal from burnt trees had provided more than 85% of the energy in Haiti for decades and at present it's something like 60%.  This has resulted in denuded mountain slopes that cannot absorb and hold back the deluges of rainwater. For an interesting take (and references) on whether or not Haiti is as heavily deforested as popularly believed, or less so, see the interesting post in Envirosociety.org here.