Place your bets for a chance of posterity on Lunar Mission One

When I learned about the unveiling of Lunar Mission One (LM1) , a few days after the global excitement about ESA’a Rosetta mission following Philae’s 12 November 2014 landing on a far-distant comet and success with its core experiments, it did cross my mind that here was a bit of a let-down in PR terms. There’s an old saying – ‘What can follow the Lord Mayor’s Show?’ – and the thrill of Philae’s landing rivalled any of the events at the 2012 London Olympics, plus the science it and Rosetta promise is likely to be about as leading-edge as it will get for quite some time. So what does LM1 offer that might achieve a similar scoop, and indeed your prospect of virtual immortality?

Unlike NASA or ESA missions, LM1 is to be a crowd-funded private enterprise by Lunar Missions Ltd, and for that the subscribers will want something in exchange. Through Kickstarter anyone can have a punt to help raise the initial £600 thousand goal by midnight on 17 December. Apparently that sum is to fund 3 years full-time work by a professional management team to raise further mission funds from commercial partners to take the project further: it will cost at least £0.5 billion. At this stage you can pledge any sum you wish, but what you get in return depends on your generosity. Highlights are: for £3 to 15 the reward is ‘Our eternal thanks and a place in space history’; >£15 gets you a certificate and a place in an online ‘wall of thanks’; >£30 escalates to your name being included in a digital ‘time capsule’ taken to the Moon and buried, plus membership of the Lunar Missions Club; >£60 entitles you to a voucher to invest in your own digital ‘memory box’ to go in the capsule – one of ‘millions and millions’ – and a vote on key decisions; for >£300 you can ‘Meet the Team’; >£600 gets you annual meetings and a chance to ballot for the landing module’s name; for higher contributions there are invitations to the launch (>£1200), sealing of the digital archive capsule and your name engraved on the lander (>£3000); and – wait for it – you get a place in the viewing gallery at Mission Control if you can stump up more than £5000.

For those contributing £60 or more, what goes in the much vaunted digital ‘Memory Box’ is on a sliding scale, from the equivalent of a text message to a strand of your hair and the DNA in it. One catch, if you are thinking of resurrection, is that it will be at the bottom of a 5 cm diameter hole at least 20 m deep. The buried digital archive will also contain a record of all living species on Earth and the entire history of humankind to date, but a continually updated copy will also be freely available online. Wikipedia seems not to be associated for some reason, but every item in this public archive will be peer-reviewed through an editorial board to whose deliberations schools, colleges and universities can contribute. The buried, multi-Terabyte, digital capsule is said to have a life of perhaps a billion years. Currently the longest lived data storage (~1500 years) is still ink on vellum, whereas the most advanced static and optical digital media are estimated to have a maximum 100 year lifetime, subject to technical obsolescence. On the plus side, privacy is guaranteed, partly by the nature of the storage. So, for £10000 Joe and Josie Soap will figure on a kind of cenotaph but who- or whatever digs up the module will learn absolutely nothing about them and but conceivably could clone them from their anonymous strands of hair.

What are the science goals for an LM1 landing scheduled for 2024 that cannot be achieved by lunar-lander and sample-return missions currently under state-funded development by China, Russia, NASA, Japan and India before LM1 reaches the ‘Go/No Go’ stage? The landing is planned for the Moon’s South Pole, on the rim of a major crater. There, LM1 will drill a hole to between 20-100 m deep, using a maximum of 1 kW of solar power – this ‘will also be a major leap forward for safer and more efficient remote drilling on Earth’: make of that claim what you will. Such a hole is said to enable sampling of pristine lunar rock in 15 cm lengths of 2.5 cm diameter core through the debris of the impact that caused the crater. The core samples are to be chemically analysed in the lander to test the hypothesis that Earth and Moon shared their origins. Future missions may pick up the cores and return them for more detailed analysis on Earth. But consider this: the oldest rocks known from the Apollo programme are approximately 4.4 billion year-old, feldspar-rich anorthosites that are thought to have formed the lunar highlands through fractional crystallisation of an early magma ocean that immediately followed Moon formation. Any unfractionated lunar material is only likely, if at all, at far greater depths than 20 m, and none was found or even suggested among the 0.4 tonnes of samples returned by the Apollo missions, which have been repeatedly analysed using advanced instruments. Indeed, near-surface debris from a crater rim is unlikely to be any more diverse lithologically than the various kinds of lunar surface from which the Apollo samples were collected, and may be contaminated by whatever caused the cratering and by the immense, long-lived heating at the impact site itself.

filedesc Lunar Ferroan Anorthosite #60025 (Pla...

Lunar Ferroan Anorthosite #60025 (Plagioclase Feldspar). Collected by Apollo 16 from the Lunar Highlands near Descartes Crater. (credit: National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.)

Compared with the prospect of advancing understanding of the origins of life and the Earth’s oceans, and the early stages of Solar System evolution from data provided by Rosetta and Philae, LM1 might seem less exciting, though the buzz being hyped is that it would be a People’s Mission. Yet those who place their punt on it and the commercial concerns that ultimately earn from it are two different sets of people. The ambitious global education wing will, of course, face competition from the growth of MOOCs in the science, technology, engineering and maths area that have a considerable head start, but it does have a noble ring to it. Whatever, if you make a pledge before midnight on 17 December this year and the ‘pump-priming’ target is not met by then, you pay nothing. If £600 thousand is raised there is no going back and only 10 years to wait. But what a challenge, you may well think… LM1 definitely has the edge over Virgin Galactica, but here on Earth there are probably a great many more vital challenges than either.

A supervolcano’s plumbing system

What was the most devastating natural disaster ever to face humans? It would be tempting to suggest the Indian Ocean tsunami of 26 December 2004, but that is because most people remember it with horror. In fact the worst the Earth ever flung at us was much further back in our history and left a huge spike of sulfates in the Greenland icecap at around 73 thousand years ago. This relic of volcanic aerosols that had blasted into the stratosphere was tracked back to a 100 by 30 km caldera in Sumatra now occupied by a lake (Lake Toba) that is 500 m deep in places and almost filled by a slightly off-centre island. The eruption explosively ejected 2800 cubic kilometres of magma, of which an estimated 800 km3 fell as ash across a wide swath of the tropics westwards of Sumatra at least as far as Arabia and East Africa; the line of march taken by anatomically modern humans migrating from Africa. In India and Malaysia the Toba ash layer reaches 5-10 m thickness and probably occurs undetected as a thin layer across the entire tropics. Around 1010 tonnes of sulfuric acid belched out, some to enter and linger in the stratosphere, which is estimated to have caused an average decrease in average global temperatures of 3.0 to 3.5 °C for several years. Studies of human mtDNA hint at a genetic bottleneck around the time of Toba’s eruption and a large decrease, perhaps as much as 60%, in the global population of Homo sapiens. But humans survived or quickly filled devastated land in India, where stone tools are found both below and just above the Toba ash layer.

Landsat image of Lake Toba, the largest volcan...

Landsat image (120 km across) of Lake Toba, the largest volcanic crater lake in the world. (credit: Wikipedia)

The largest volcanic eruption in the last 26 Ma, there can be little doubt that no other natural catastrophe had as large an influence on humanity as did Toba. Of course, slower processes such as climate change and ups and downs of sea level lay behind the repeated spread of humans out of Africa and probably their evolution as a whole. The drama of the Toba event has drawn attention to the massive risk posed by supervolcanoes in general, such as that centred on Yellowstone in the NW US, which show signs of activity 640 ka after its last major explosive event. Toba certainly is not dead, for its peculiar island of Samosir has been uplifted steadily since the eruption by about 450 m, probably due to influx of magma deep beneath the surface, and experiences shallow earthquakes. What lies in the guts of supervolcanoes is literally a hot topic and a new 3-D imaging method has been applied to Toba.

English: Batak village on Samosir island, Lake...

Traditional village on Samosir island, Lake Toba. (credit: Wikipedia)

Seismic tomography that uses background or ambient seismic noise has become a powerful technique for studying the crust and lithosphere when small-amplitude short-wavelength Rayleigh and Love surface waves are monitored to pick up subsurface reflecting bodies and measure variation in wave speed with depth. The greater the density of seismometers deployed, the finer the resolution of deep crustal features and 40 such detectors are in place around Lake Toba. A team of Russian, French and German geophysicists have reported new results bearing on how magma may be accumulating beneath the vast caldera (Jaxibulatov, K. et al. 2014. A large magmatic sill complex beneath the Toba caldera. Science, v. 346, p. 617-619). Down to about 7 km the tomography has picked up a structurally homogeneous low-speed zone directly beneath Samosir Island that the authors attribute to the 73 ka explosive eruption. Beneath that several magma sills appear to dominate the sub-caldera crust, possibly responsible for the post eruption uplift within the caldera: the precursor to a layered intrusive body and each an increment towards a further huge eruption.

Interpretation of seismic tomography cross section of Toba. Greens to reds increasingly negative shear speed anomaly. Showing magma sills in lower crust and 74 ka damage zone above 7 km. (credit: Jaxibulatov et al. 2014

Interpretation of seismic tomography cross section of Toba. Greens to reds increasingly negative shear speed anomaly. Showing magma sills in lower crust and 74 ka damage zone above 7 km. (credit: Jaxibulatov et al. 2014

October 2014 picture

The 1200 m Montserrat mountains in Catalonia, NE Spain (credit: Xavier Varela)

The 1200 m Montserrat mountains in Catalonia, NE Spain (credit: Xavier Varela)

The Montserrat mountains are part of the Pre-Coastal Range of Catalonia in Spain and rise close to the capital Barcelona to form a spectacular backdrop.

Their peculiar pinnacled form results from their comprising tough, well-cemented thick conglomerates, pink in colour and having formed in an early Cenozoic delta. The conglomerates are in very thick, homogeneous beds riven by vertical joints. These two features control the serrated and pinnacled topography, from which is derived the ranges’ Catalan name.

Cenozoic conglomerates of the Monserrat mountains, Catalonia (credit: Wikipedia)

Human evolution news

Since discovery of its fossilised remains in Liang Bua cave on the Indonesian island of Flores was discovered in 2004 the diminutive Homo floresienesis, dubbed the ‘hobbit’ by the media, has remained a popular news item each time controversies surrounding it have flared. To mark the tenth anniversary  of its publication of a paper describing the remains Nature has summarised the recollections of many of those involved in trying to understand the significance of H. floresiensis (Callaway, E. 2014. Tales of the hobbit. Nature, v. 514, p. 422-426). Two main schools of thought continue in dispute, one holding that it is anatomically so different from anatomically modern humans and earlier members of the genus Homo that it constitutes a new species, despite its youngest member dating back only 18 ka, the other that it is H. sapiens, its tiny size having resulted from some kind of genetic disorder, such as microcephaly or Down’s syndrome. There have been so many attempts to expunge the idea of such an odd fossil cohabiting an island with fully modern humans yet being a different and perhaps extremely archaic species that such an outlook itself seems somewhat pathological.

English: Homo floresiensis, replica Deutsch: H...

Replica of the Homo floresiensis skull from Liang Bua cave, Flores, Indonesia (credit: Wikipedia)

The evidence presented to force H. floresiensis into a deformed human mould has never been convincing, and the best way of combating that view is to document from a ‘non-combatant ‘standpoint the many ways in which its anatomy differs from ours and how it might have arisen; a job to which Chris Stringer of the Museum of Natural History in London is amply qualified (Stringer, S. 2014. Small remains still pose big problems. Nature, v. 514, p. 427-429). He, like the original discoverers, feels this is a case of evolution of small stature due to a limited population being isolated for a long time on a relatively small island, which is just what happened to elephants that colonised Flores to become the pigmy Stegodon that H. floresiensis seemingly hunted. These tiny Flores dwellers (adults were about 1 m tall) used fire and made tools, similar ones dating as far back as ~1 Ma. Stringer mentions the possibility of first human colonisation about that time by Asian H. erectus but also the view that if it happened once there may have been several waves of immigration to Flores. The unusual ‘hobbit’ anatomy is not restricted to tiny size and a small skull and brain cavity (400 cm3), but includes odd hips, wrist bones, shoulder joint and collar bone. In fact the remains bear as much or more resemblance to australopithecines like ‘Lucy’ (3.2 Ma) than to other members of our genus, even H. erectus that has been proposed as its possible ancestor. Could they be far-travelled descendants of the 1.8 Ma old H. georgicus from Dmanisi in Georgia? More fossils clearly need to be found, and Stringer raises the possibility of the search being widened to other islands east of Java, such as Sulawesi, the Philippines and Timor. He hints that in such a tectonically active region tsunamis may have led to animals and humans saving themselves and then being current dispersed on rafts of broken vegetation, rather like some survivors of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami who ended up 150 miles from their homes by such a means.

Another story that is set to ‘run and run’ is that of ‘alien’ DNA in the human genome and productive relations between early out-of-Africa migrants with Neanderthals, Denisovans and perhaps yet a mysterious, earlier human species. The oldest (45 ka) anatomically modern human genome sequence so far charted is from a leg bone found by a mammoth-ivory prospector in Siberian permafrost (Fu, Q. and 27 others 2014. Genome sequence of a 45,000-year-old modern human from western Siberia. Nature, v. 514, p. 445-449). Like a great many living non-Africans this individual carried about 2 % Neanderthal DNA, but unlike living people the 45 ka genome has it in significantly longer segments. That allowed the authors to re-estimate the timing of the genetic flow from Neanderthals into the individual’s ancestors. Previous estimates from living DNA geve the possibility of that being between 37-86 ka, but this closer data suggests that it happened between 7 to 13 ka before the date of the fossil femur, i.e. narrowing it down to between 52 and 58 ka closer to the widely suggested time of African exodus around 60 ka (but see an Earth Pages item from September 2014)

New gravity and bathymetric maps of the oceans

By far the least costly means of surveying the ocean floor on a global scale is the use of data remotely sensed from Earth orbit. That may sound absurd: how can it be possible to peer through thousands of metres of seawater? The answer comes from a practical application of lateral thinking. As well as being influenced by lunar and solar tidal attraction, sea level also depends on the Earth’s gravity field; that is, on the distribution of mass beneath the sea surface – how deep the water is and on varying density of rocks that lie beneath the sea floor. Water having a low density, the deeper it is the lower the overall gravitational attraction, and vice versa. Consequently, seawater is attracted towards shallower areas, standing high over, say, a seamount and low over the abyssal plains and trenches. Measuring sea-surface elevation defines the true shape that Earth would take if the entire surface was covered by water – the geoid – and is both a key to variations in gravity over the oceans and to bathymetry.

Radar altimeters can measure the average height of the sea surface to within a couple of centimetres: the roughness and tidal fluctuations are ‘ironed out’ by measurements every couple of weeks as the satellite passes on a regular orbital schedule. There is absolutely no way this systematic and highly accurate approach could be achieved by ship-borne bathymetric or gravity measurements, although such surveys help check the results from radar altimetry over widely spaced transects. Even after 40 years of accurate mapping with hundreds of ship-borne echo sounders 50% of the ocean floor is more than 10 km from such a depth measurement (80% lacks depth soundings)

This approach has been used since the first radar altimeter was placed in orbit on Seasat, launched in 1978, which revolutionised bathymetry and the details of plate tectonic features on the ocean floor. Since then, improvements in measurements of sea-surface elevation and the computer processing needed to extract the information from complex radar data have show more detail. The latest refinement stems from two satellites, NASA’s Jason-1(2001) and the European Space Agency’s Cryosat-2 (2010) (Sandwell, D.T. et al. 2014. New global marine gravity model from CryoSat-2 and Jason-1 reveals buried tectonic structure. Science, v. 346. p. 65-67; see also Hwang, C & Chang, E.T.Y. 2014. Seafloor secrets revealed. Science, v. 346. p. 32-33). If you have Google Earth you can view the marine gravity data by clicking here.  The maps throw light on previously unknown tectonic features beneath the China Sea (large faults buried by sediments), the Gulf of Mexico (an extinct spreading centre) and the South Atlantic (a major propagating rift) as well as thousands of seamounts.

Global gravity over the oceans derived from Jason-1 and Cryosat-2 radar altimetry (credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

Global gravity over the oceans derived from Jason-1 and Cryosat-2 radar altimetry (credit: Scripps Institution of Oceanography)

There are many ways of processing the data, and so years of fruitful interpretation lie ahead of oceanographers and tectonicians, with more data likely from other suitably equipped satellites: sea-surface height studies are also essential in mapping changing surface currents, variations in water density and salinity, sea-ice thickness, eddies, superswells and changes due to processes linked to El Niño.

‘Earliest’ figurative art now spans Eurasia

The first generally recognised piece of artwork is abstract in the extreme: a worked piece of hematite with a complex linear pattern etched into it. It comes from Blombos Cave  in South Africa, together with similarly engraved bone, shell ornaments and advances in stone tool kits.

Image copyright held by author, Chris Henshilw...

Artifacts from Blombos Cave, South Africa (credit: Wikipedia; copyright held by Chris Henshilwood)

Dated at 100 ka, the Blombos culture is regarded by many palaeoanthropologists as the start of the ‘First Human Revolution’. Yet most believe that such a massive cultural shift only properly manifested itself around 40 ka in Europe shortly after its colonisation by anatomically modern humans. It was then that lifelike pictures of animals began to appear on the walls of caves, such as those discovered in Chauvet Cave in France and radiocarbon dated to between 35.5 to 38.8 ka.

Drawing of horses in the Chauvet cave.

Drawing of horses in the Chauvet cave. (credit: Wikipedia)

Such a Eurocentric view is based on the lack of evidence for precedent art of this kind from elsewhere. The adage that 'absence of evidence is not evidence of absence' - attributed to Carl Sagan - recently popped up with sophisticated dating of cave art in the Indonesian island of Sulawesi. The cave-riddled limestones of southern Sulawesi have long been known for artwork on the roofs of caves and in some of their darker recesses, including sketches of local animals, humans and a great many stencils made by blowing a spray of pigment over a hand placed on a rock face. The pictures were thought to be relatively recent.

Painting of a dwarf water buffalo and stencils of human hands from a cave in SW Sulawesi (credit: Maxim Aubert, Griffith University, Australia)

Painting of a dwarf water buffalo and stencils of human hands from a cave in SW Sulawesi (credit: Maxim Aubert, Griffith University, Australia)

A joint Australian-Indonesian  group of Archaeologists used a specialist technique to date them (Aubert, M. and 9 others 2014. Pleistocene cave art from Sulawesi, Indonesia. Nature, v. 514, p. 223-227. See also Roebroeks, W. 2014. Art on the move. Nature (News & Views), v. 514, p. 170-171). Like many paintings in limestone caves, with time they become coated with calcite film deposited from water flowing over the rock surface, known as flowstone or speleothem. It is possible to date the film layers  using the uranium-series method to derive a maximum age for the encased pigment from speleothem beneath it and a minimum age from the layer immediately overlaying it. One of the hand stencils proved to be the oldest found anywhere, with a minimum age of 39.9 ka, while sketches of animals ranged from 35.4 to 35.7 ka. To see more images and view an interactive video about the Sulawesi finds click here.
The discovery by Maxime Auberts and his colleagues has set the cat among the pigeons as regards the origin of visual art. The paintings’ roughly coincident age with the earliest in Europe raises three possibilities: the artistic muse struck simultaneously with people widely separated since their ancestors’ emergence from Africa; somehow the skills were quickly carried a third of the way around the world from one place to the other; the original migrants from Africa took artistic ability of this kind with them to Eurasia, perhaps as early as 125 ka ago.
Three points need to be considered: whether in Europe or eastern Indonesia, cave art is preserved either on the roofs or in the deep recesses of caves, where it is more likely to survive then in more exposed sites; preservation by speleothem enhances longevity and the oldest works are in limestone caves; many more archaeologists have researched caves in Europe than in the far larger areas of Asia and Africa. A view worth considering is that art may have begun outdoors, in a well-lit site on whatever ‘canvas’ presented itself. The artists’ choice of cave walls in Europe and Indonesia may have resulted from the need for shelter from rain and/or cold, whereas much of Africa and Australia poses little need for ‘interior design’. Besides, what if art began on the most easily available canvas of all – human skin! My guess is that the record will widen in space and deepen in time.
See also here

Signs of lunar tectonics

Large features on the near side of the Moon give us the illusion of the Man-in-the-Moon gazing down benevolently once a month. The lightest parts are the ancient lunar highlands made from feldspar-rich anorthosite, hence their high albedo. The dark components, originally thought to be seas or maria, are now known to be large areas of flood basalt formed about half a billion years after the Moon’s origin. Some show signs of a circular structure and have been assigned to the magmatic aftermath of truly gigantic impacts during the 4.1-3.8 Ga Late Heavy Bombardment. The largest mare feature, with a diameter of 3200 km, is Oceanus Procellarum, which has a more irregular shape, though it envelopes some smaller maria with partially circular outlines.

Full Moon view from earth In Belgium (Hamois)....

Full Moon viewed from Earth. Oceanus Procellarum is the large, irregular dark feature at left. (credit: Wikipedia)

A key line of investigation to improve knowledge of the lunar maria is the structure of the Moon’s gravitational field above them. Obviously, this can only be achieved by an orbiting experiment, and in early 2012 NASA launched one to provide detailed gravitational information: the Gravity Recovery and Interior Laboratory (GRAIL) whose early results were summarised by EPN in December 2012. GRAIL used two satellites orbiting in a tandem configuration similar to the US-German Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) launched in 2002 to measure variations over time in the Earth’s gravity field. The Grail orbiters flew in a low orbit and eventually crashed into the Moon in December 2012, after producing lots of data whose processing continues.

The latest finding from GRAIL concerns the gravity structure of the Procellarum region (Andrews-Hanna, J.C. and 13 others 2014. Structure and evolution of the lunar Procellarum region as revealed by GRAIL gravity data. Nature, v. 514, p. 68-71) have yielded a major surprise. Instead of a system of anomalies combining circular arcs, as might be expected from a product of major impacts, the basaltic basin has a border made up of many linear segments that define an unusually angular structure.

The topography and gravity structure of the Moon. Oceanus Procellarum is roughly at the centre. Note: the images cover both near- and far side of the Moon. (credit: Andrews-Hanna et al 2014)

The topography and gravity structure of the Moon. Oceanus Procellarum is roughly at the centre. Note: the images cover both near- and far side of the Moon. (credit: Andrews-Hanna et al 2014)

The features only become apparent from the gravity data after they have been converted to the first derivative of the Bouguer anomaly (its gradient). Interpreting the features has to explain the angularity, which looks far more like an outcome of tectonics than bombardments. The features have been explained as rift structures through which basaltic magma oozed to the surface, perhaps feeding the vast outpourings of mare basalts, unusually rich in potassium (K), rare-earth elements (REE) and phosphorus (P) know as KREEP basalts. The Procellarum polygonal structure encompasses those parts of the lunar surface that are richest in the radioactive isotopes of potassium, thorium and uranium (measured from orbit by a gamma-ray spectrometer) – thorium concentration is shown in the figure.

Tectonics there may be on the Moon, but the authors are not suggesting plate tectonics but rather structures formed as a huge mass of radioactively heated lunar lithosphere cooled down at a faster rate than the rest of the outer Moon. Nor are they casting doubt on the Late Heavy Bombardment, for there is no escaping the presence of both topographic and gravity-defined circular features, just that the biggest expanse of basaltic surface on the Moon may have erupted for other reasons than a huge impact.

Earthquakes and radar interferometry

A friend recently moved to the Napa Valley in California, almost certainly motivated by the vast area given over to the grape and the quality of Napa wines. Shortly after the flit, in the middle of some minor refurbishment, he had quite a shock; a Magnitude 6.0 earthquake at 3:20 a.m. local time on 24 August, the worst in northern California for 25 years. My friend lives only 15 km from the epicentre in South Napa, but his house was undamaged. His confidence in the move remains unshaken, however, as there was no effect on this year’s grape harvest.

The event was monitored by the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-1A high-resolution radar satellite that entered orbit in April 2014. Sentinel revisits any area on the ground every 12 days, has all-weather/day-night imaging capacity, a 250 km-wide image swath with 10 m spatial resolution and is designed to analyse ground movements using interferometry between radar data before and after events. Interferometric radar imaging or InSAR relies on changes in the phase of radar waves between two dates of ‘illumination’ of the ground – radar images normally use only the amplitude of a radar wave, ignoring its phase – and potentially can measure shifts in ground elevation of the order of centimetres.

Interferometric radar image of the area around San Francisco showing the ground movement for the period before and after the

Interferometric Sentinel-1A radar image of the area around San Francisco showing the ground movement for the period before and after the Napa Valley earthquake (NE corner) of 24 August 2014 (credit: ESA)

The image records ground movement in small steps of elevation that are assigned colours, the sequence blue-green-yellow-red-magenta spans a ground shift of about 3 cm. If several of these ‘fringes’ are closely spaced over relatively small areas this is due to significant motions locally. Broad areas with little change in colour have barely moved in the period between the dates of the two images.

The epicentre of the South Napa earthquake clearly shows up at the NE corner of the image, like half a ‘bull’s eye’. A closer look at the enlarged image (click on the image) shows two such features sharply bounded to the west by a line: that coincides with the West Napa Fault.

My friend lives to the west of the faults where the broad areas of colour signify much smaller motions than in the main affected area. He woke and left the building thinking this was a foreshock of a much more destructive event, and had an anxious few days. The United States Geological Survey  estimated that during the main ‘quake 15,000 people experienced severe shaking, 106,000 people felt very strong shaking, 176,000 felt strong shaking, and 738,000 felt moderate shaking. But there was only one fatality and 13 hospitalised casualties.


September’s picture: Iceland eruption

MoreHolurThis month’s stunning image from Earth Science Picture of the Day, taken on 8 September this year is of Iceland’s biggest fissure eruption (video clip) since 1875, in the Holuhraun lava field, which began on 31 August this year. The flow is about to meet the Jokulsa a Fjollum, a large river flowing from Iceland’s largest ice cap Vatnajokull. At the time of writing (29 September) lava is flowing along the river bed at around 1 km each day. So far, the flow has spread over 44 square kilometres, and risks blocking the Jokulsa a Fjollum where it flows through a narrow channel bounded by older lava flows. If that happens the river will form a substantial lake until it is able to flow over and erode the bedrock, and will also leave one of the country’s spectacular waterfalls (Sellfoss) dry.

Aerial View of Jökulsá á Fjöllum

Aerial View of Jökulsá á Fjöllum, Iceland, downstream of Holuhraun (credit: Wikipedia)

The fissure is connected to the large Bárðarbunga stratovolcano that lies beneath Vatnajokull, which is currently showing signs of subsidence, at about 40 cm each day, and seismicity. There are concerns that this activity may presage an eruption there which may melt large volumes of ice and perhaps release a flood or jökulhlaup from beneath the icecap. Such a flood would likely follow the course of the Jokulsa a Fjollum river.

Newly discovered signs of Archaean giant impacts

It is barely credible that only two decades ago geoscientists who argued that extraterrestrial impacts had once had an important role in Earth history met with scorn from many of their peers; slightly mad, even bad and perhaps dangerous to know. Yet clear evidence for impacts has grown steadily, especially in the time before 2.5 billion years ago known as the Archaean (see EPN for March 2003 , April 2005, July 2012 , May 2014). Even in the 1990s, when it should have been clear from the golden years of lunar exploration that our neighbour had been battered at the outset of the Archaean, claims for terrestrial evidence of the tail-end of that cataclysmic event were eyed askance. Now, one of the pioneer researchers into the oldest terrestrial impacts, Don Lowe of Stanford University, California has, with two colleagues, reported finds of yet more impact-related spherule beds from the famous Archaean repository of the Barberton Mountains in South Africa (Lowe, D.R. et al. 2014. Recently discovered 3.42-3.23 Ga impact layers, Barberton Belt, South Africa: 3.8 Ga detrital zircons, Archaean impact history and tectonic implications. Geology, v. 42, p. 747-750).

Barberton greenstone belt, South Africa (credit: Barberton World Heritage Site)

Barberton greenstone belt, South Africa (credit: Barberton World Heritage Site)

Like four other such layers at Barberton, those newly described contain several types of spherules, degraded to microcrystalline alteration products of the original glasses. Some of them contain clear evidence of originally molten droplets having welded together on deposition. Their contrasted geochemistry reveals target rocks ranging in composition from well-sorted quartz sands to intermediate, mafic and ultramafic igneous rocks. Some beds are overlain by chaotic deposits familiar from more recent times as products of tsunamis, with signs that the spherules themselves had been picked up and transported.

Dated by their stratigraphic relations to local felsic igneous rocks, the spherule beds arrived in pulses over a period of about 240 Ma between 3.42 to 3.23 Ga. Even more interesting, the overlying tsunami beds have yielded transported zircons that extend back to 3.8 Ga spanning the Archaean history of the Kaapvaal craton of which the Barberton greenstone belt rests and indeed that of many Eoarchaean cratons; the Earth’s oldest tangible continental crust. The zircons may reflect the depth to which the impacts penetrated, possibly the base of the continental crust. It isn’t easy to judge the size of the responsible impactors from the available evidence, but Lowe and colleagues suggest that they were much larger than that which closed the Mesozoic at the Cretaceous-Palaeogene boundary; perhaps of the order of 20-70 km across. So, although the late, heavy bombardment of the Moon seems to have closed at around 3.8 Ga, from evidence yielded by the Apollo programme, until at least half a billion years later large objects continued to hit the Earth more often than expected from the lunar record. Lowe has suggested that this tail-end of major bombardment on Earth may eventually have triggered the onset of plate tectonics as we know it now.