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, May 26, 2020

Glacier Moss Mice: Rolling stones CAN gather moss!

Glacier mice in Iceland. Hotaling et al.
In the 1950's an Icelandic researcher, Jon Eythorsson, described the features shown in the photo to the left as "rolling stones [that] CAN gather moss," and dubbed them "glacier mice." These balls of mass are not attached to anything and just rest on the ice...but they move around in a "coordinated herd-like fashion" (Hotaling et al., 2020 as reported here by NPR).
   Hotaling et al., describe these as "soft, wet, squishy pillow(s) of moss" that seem to form out of different moss species nucleated around an impurity such as a rock or a bit of dust (but some moss balls do not have a seed kernel and so it appears that they can form without a seed nucleus).  The impurities, possibly with fine-grained sediment adhering to them, provide a growth substrate for moss spores brought in by wind.  They can grow up to ~10 cm (rarely, up to 18 cm). Other authors have suggested that the size is limited by the tensile strength of moss stems.
     Because moss would die if not exposed to sunlight, the mice must roll around to change the orientation of the surfaces to the sun. The mice sometimes teeter on a pedestal of ice, and the authors speculate that the moss insulates the underlying ice from sunlight until eventually they fall off the pedestal and roll away.
     Hotaling and colleagues tagged 30 moss balls with a loop of wire that had a sequence of colored beads on it, and then tracked them from 2009-2012. When the mice fell off the pedestals, they did not move simply downhill, nor in an obvious wind direction, nor with the dominant direction of solar radiation.  But, they moved about 1"/day like a choreographed formation of "birds or a herd of wildebeests."
    Although glacier scientists have long observed these and "dote" on them, finding them "extremely engaging," they have no explanation other than that "the explanation is somewhere in the physics of the energy and the heat around the surface of the glacier" (Ruth Mottram, Danish Meteorological Institute).

REFERENCE: Hotaling, S., Bartholomaus, T.C., Gilbert, S.L., Rolling stones gather moss: movement and longevity of moss balls on an Alaskan glacier, Polar Biology, https://doi.org/10.1007/s00300-020-02675-6. Published online May 14, 2020.


Thursday, May 21, 2020

The Pandemic and Compounding Events: Natural and Stealth Disasters

Cleveland Volcano, Alaska, 2006. NASA image.
The COVID-19 pandemic is the focus of attention in many ways during 2020 and is likely to remain so for months, if not years, to come. Because of its long duration other disasters are likely to occur: some could be technological (e.g., electrical grid failures, computer network problems, nuclear reactor difficulties) and some will inevitably involve the natural world of which we humans are a part. These additional disasters are being referred to as "compounding events" by the media and agencies involved in responding to them.
     Here I describe two end-member types of disasters, and suggest that recognition of the spectrum is useful in comparing/contrasting different ways of preparing for and recovering from them. Agencies such as FEMA assume that their management structure and operations are universally applicable to all disasters with, perhaps, some fine-tuning. However, differences in disaster characteristics such as duration, geographic areal extent, population numbers, and civil structures affected can be considerable (e.g., a town affected by a landslide versus a nation and world affected by a pandemic).
      Natural processes of the earth unleash energy in ways that are sometimes harmful or, at best, inconvenient, for humans: earthquakes, volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, landslides, floods. Ignoring the biological component of the geosphere,  such events have historically called such events "natural disasters," or "Acts of God" by the insurance industry. They are typically characterized by a sudden onset and relatively immediate consequences. There are many historical examples and our human societies have evolved various ways of coping with them logistically, economically, and psychologically.
     Preparation, co-existence, recovery, and remediation are possible, at least to some extent, even in the largest of events. The limited local extent of these disasters allows the possibility of discussion and resolution.
     There are other disasters that involve the natural systems that support us. Rather than being driven primarily by natural non-biological processes, this set of disasters is driven by human behavior. Examples are climate change, desertification, acidification and nitrogen-contamination of the oceans, compaction and erosion of fertile soils, and pandemics. They typically have more gradual onsets than natural disasters and, because of this, I refer to these as "stealth disasters." (See Footnote for reference) Although they are unfolding unnoticed or ignored by many, they are having near-term consequences. At a global scale they are new to human experience.
Dead zone (hypoxia), a biological desert in the Gulf of Mexico NOAA image
     Our efforts at preparation, co-existence, recovery, and remediation for stealth disasters lag far behind those that we have in place for natural disasters. Furthermore, the four stages of preparation--co-existence, recovery, and remediation--in stealth disaster situations involve many ethical questions that typically must be solved in the context of much larger cultural and social differences than encountered in natural disaster settings.
    Four core ethical principles may provide guidelines—autonomy, non-maleficence, beneficence, and justice (e.g., Jamais Cascio).  We, as a community, and our leaders can work to ensure that as people take responsibility for their own lives (autonomy) they have relevant information in usable form. To minimize harm to others and the environment (non-maleficence), we can design and implement sustainable ways to extract resources and dispose of waste. To advance the welfare of humankind (beneficence), we can work on innovative new ways of living. This should strive for use of commodities that are easily-obtained, and on replacements for others, aiming toward zero waste. And, we can strive toward social justice by recognizing that social, ethical, legal and political issues regarding resource use may be far more difficult than the technical ones, and work within the (sometimes frustrating human) framework for resolution of those issues.
     The global scope of compound disasters raises far more ethical issues than we have encountered with either natural or stealth disasters taken one at a time. Just as we have learned (e.g., Hurricanes Katrina, Sandy, Maria, and the on-going pandemic in the U.S.) that inter-agency response is crucial to successful management of natural and stealth disasters, we can expect that global cooperation in management and governance will be essential to the management of compound disasters.

Footnote: The Dynamics of Disaster by Susan W. Kieffer, Norton Press, 2013.

Adapted from an abstract at the EGU General Assembly April 7-12, 2013, Vienna, Austrai, I.D. EGU2013-2380.