The nearest Earth-like planet

What could be more exciting for exobiologists and planetary scientists than to discover that a nearby star is orbited by a planet approximately the same mass as the Earth that may support liquid water: a world in the ‘Goldilocks zone’? It seems that Proxima Centauri, the Sun’s closest companion star (4.2 light years distant), might have such a planet (Anglada-Escudé, G. And 30 others 2016. A terrestrial planet candidate in a temperate orbit around Proxima Centauri. Nature, v. 536, p. 437-440).  It is one of 34 candidates found to date with various levels of likelihood for having the potential to produce life and support it. To fit the bill a planet first has to orbit a star at a distance where the stellar energy output is unlikely to vapourise any surface water yet is sufficient to keep it at a temperature above freezing point, i.e. the ‘Goldilocks’ or circumstellar habitable zone is closer to a cool star than to a hot one. Note that the liquid-water criterion requires that the planet also has an atmosphere with sufficient pressure to maintain liquid water. It also needs to have a mass close to that of the Earth (between 0.1 to 5 Earth masses) and a similar density, i.e. a candidate needs to be dominated by silicates so that it has a solid surface rather than being made mainly of gases and liquids.

The location of Alpha Centauri A and B, Proxim...

The location of Alpha Centauri A and B, Proxima Centauri and the Sun in the Hertzsprung-Russell (HR) diagram. (credit: Wikipedia)

Proxima Centauri b, as the planet is called, was not discovered by the Kepler space telescope using the transit method (drops in a star’s brightness as a planet transits across its disk) but by terrestrial telescopes that measure the Doppler shifts in starlight as it wobbles because of the gravitational affect of an orbiting planet. As well as being close, Proxima Centauri is much smaller than the Sun so such effects are more pronounced, especially by planets orbiting close to it. The planet that has excited great interest has an orbital period of only 11.2 Earth days so is much closer to its star and may have a surface temperature (without any greenhouse effect) of 234 K (21 degrees less than that of Earth). The wobble suggests a mass and radius are likely to be 1.3  and between 0.8 to 1.4 times those of Earth, respectively. So Proxima Centauri b is probably a silicate-rich world. But, of course, such limited information gives no guarantee whatever of the presence of liquid water and an atmosphere that can support it. Neither is it possible to suggest a day length. In fact, such a close orbit may have resulted in the planet tidally locked in synchrony with its orbit, in the manner of the Moon showing only one face to the Earth. Moreover, its star is a red dwarf and is known to produce a prodigious X-ray flux, frequent flares and probably a stream of energetic particles, from which only a planet with a magnetic field is shielded. All red dwarfs seem to have such characteristics, and the list of possible Earth-like planets show them to be the most common hosts.

It is too early to get overexcited as technologies for astronomical detection of atmospheres and surface composition are about a decade off at the earliest. Being so close makes it tempting for some space agency to plan sending tiny probes (around 1 gram) using a laser propulsion system that is under development. Anything as substantial as existing planetary probes and certainly a crewed mission is unthinkable with current propulsion systems – a one-way trip of 80 thousand years and stupendous amounts of fuel.

China’s legendary great flood did happen

The Biblical Flood is one of several legendary catastrophes that over the millennia have made their way into popular mythology. Indeed, Baron Georges Cuvier explained his stratigraphy of the Paris Basin and fossil evidence for extinctions of animals as the results of repeated inundations. His opinions and those of other scientists of the catastrophist school reflect the philosophical transition that began with the Enlightenment of the 18th century: curiosity and observation set against medieval dogma. It seems that transition is incomplete as there are still people who seek remains of Noah’s Ark and propose alien beings as the constructors of the huge geoglyphs of the Nazka Desert in Peru. On the other hand, Walter Pitman – one of the pioneers of plate tectonics – and his colleague William Ryan sought a rational explanation for the Flood, based in part on a more detailed description of a flodd in the Near East in one of the oldest written documents, the Epic of Gilgamesh (~2150-1400 BCE). In 1996 they published a hypothesis that such flood legends may have arisen from oral accounts of the flooding of the previously cut-off Black Sea basin through the Bosphorus as global sea level rose about 7600 years ago.

Chinese mythology too contains graphic descriptions of catastrophic flooding in the legend of Emperor Yu, first written down at the start of the first millennium BCE. Rather than being a victim or a survivor of catastrophe, Yu is credited with relieving the aftermath of the supposed flood by instigating ingenious systems of dredging and rechanneling the responsible river, and instigating the start of Chinese civilisation and the Xia Dynasty. Such detail conveys a greater air of veracity than a substantial boat containing male and female representatives of all animal species ending up on top of a mountain once Flood waters subsided! Recent research by Quinglong Wu of the School of Archeology at Peking University, together with other Chinese and US colleagues along the Yellow River has nailed the truth of the legend to events in the headwaters of the Yellow River (Wu, Q. and 15 others 2016. Outburst flood at 1920 BCE supports historicity of China’s Great Flood and the Xia dynasty. Science, v. 353, p. 579-582).

Map of the Yellow River

Map of the Yellow River from the Qing Dynasty. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The team discovered evidence for a huge landslide in a terrace of the Yellow River where it flows through the Jishi Gorge. Probably dislodged by an earthquake, the slide blocked the gorge so that a large lake formed above it. The lake also left sedimentary evidence on the flanks of the gorge, which suggest that it may have been as much as 200 m deep and impounded 12 to 17 km3 of water. Downstream of the gorge sediments of the Guanting Basin contain chaotic sediments characteristic of outburst floods, probably deposited once the landslide dam was breached. 14C dates of charcoal from the outburst flood sediments give a likely age for the massive event of 1922±28 BCE. Astonishingly, remains of three children from a cave near the Yellow River are buried in the flood deposits and provided an age within error of that of the flood: they were victims. Sediments extending to the coast in the North China Plain are the repositories of much of the archaeological evidence for the evolution of Chinese culture along with signs of rates of sedimentation. The definite signs of a catastrophic flood upstream coincides with the transition from Neolithic to Bronze Age artefacts in the Yellow River flood plain.

Ancient oceanic lithosphere beneath the eastern Mediterranean

The extensive active subduction zones around the Pacific ocean are responsible for a dearth of oceanic lithosphere older than about 200 Ma that still remains where it formed. Trying to get an idea of pre-Mesozoic ocean-floor processes depends almost entirely on fragmented ophiolites thrust or obducted onto continent at destructive plate margins. Yet the characteristically striped magnetic signature above in situ oceanic lithosphere offers a good chance of spotting any old oceanic areas, provided the stripes are not imperceptible because of thick sediment cover.  One of the most intriguing areas of ocean floor is that beneath the eastern Mediterranean Sea in the 3 km deep Herodotus Basin, which has long been thought to preserve a relic of old ocean floor.  Roi Granot of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel has analysed magnetic data gathered along 7 000 km of survey lines and indeed there are vague traces of stripy geomagnetic variation that has a long wavelength, to be precise there are two bands of . Mathematical analysis of the magnetic profiles suggest that they have a source  about 13 to 17 km beneath the seabed: probably crystalline crust beneath thick Mesozoic sediments (Granot, R. 2016. Palaeozoic oceanic crust preserved beneath the eastern Mediterranean. Nature Geoscience, doi:10.1038/ngeo2784).

English: Age of oceanic lithosphere Deutsch: A...

Ages of oceanic lithosphere (credit: Wikipedia)

The shape of the anomalies cannot be matched with those of younger magnetic stripes, but can be modelled to fit with a sequence of normal-reverse-normal magnetic polarity preserved in continental sequences of early Carboniferous age, about 340 Ma ago. At that age, the lithosphere would by now be old, cold and dense enough to subside to the observed depth, but the fact that it escaped subduction during amalgamation of Pangaea in the Upper Palaeozoic or when Africa collided with Eurasia in the early Cenozoic is a puzzle. Granot reckons that it most likely formed in Pangaea’s great eastern ocean embayment, known as Palaeotethys. An interesting view, but one that does not seem likely to lead any further, simply because of the great depth to which the oceanic material is buried. The deepest yet to be achieved is only 12 km in the onshore Kola Superdeep Borehole in Russia. So the changes of getting samples are slim, even if the overlying sedimentary pile proves to have hydrocarbon potential.

English: Pangea animation

Pangea break-up animation ( credit: Wikipedia)

Oceans of magma, Moon formation and Earth’s ‘Year Zero’

That the Moon formed and Earth’s geochemistry was reset by our planet’s collision with another, now vanished world, has become pretty much part of the geoscientific canon. It was but one of some unimaginably catastrophic events that possibly characterised the early Solar System and those around other stars. Since the mantle geochemistry of the Earth’s precursor was fundamentally transformed to that which underpinned all later geological events, notwithstanding the formation of the protoEarth about 4.57 Ga ago, I now think of the Moon-forming event as our homeworld’s ‘Year Zero’. It was the ‘beginning’ of which James Hutton reckoned there was ‘no vestige’. Any modern geochemist might comment, ‘Well, there must be some kind of signature!’, but what that might be and when it happened are elusive, to say the least. One way of looking for answers is, as with so many thorny issues these days, to make a mathematical model. James Connelly and Martin Bizzarro of the University of Copenhagen, Denmark, have designed one based on the fact that one of the volatile elements that must have been partially ‘blown off’ by such a collision is lead and, of course, that is an element with several isotopes that are daughters of long-term decay of radioactive uranium and thorium (Connelly, J.N. & Bizzarro, M. 2016. Lead isotope evidence for a young formation age of the Earth–Moon system. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 452, p. 36-43. doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2016.07.010).

Artist’s impression of the impact of a roughly Mars-size planet with the proto-Earth to form an incandescent cloud, from part of which the Moon formed.

Artist’s impression of the impact of a roughly Mars-size planet with the proto-Earth to form an incandescent cloud, from part of which the Moon formed. A NASA animation of lunar history can be viewed here.

Loss of volatile daughter isotopes of Pb produced by the decay schemes of highly refractory isotopes of U and Th would have reset the U-Pb and Th-Pb isotopic systems and therefore the radiogenic ‘clocks’ that depend on them in the same way as melting or high-temperature metamorphism resets the simpler 87Rb-87Sr decay scheme. Each radioactive U isotope has a different decay rate that produces a different Pb isotope daughter (235U Þ 207Pb; 238U Þ 206Pb, so it is possible to devise means of using present-day values of ratios between Pb isotopes, such as 207Pb/206Pb, 206Pb/204Pb and 207Pb/204Pb, to work back to such a ‘closure’ time. In short, that is the approach used by Connelly and Bizzarro. The most complicated bit of that geochemical ruse is estimating values of the ratios for the Earth’s modern mantle and for the Solar system in general – a procedure based on what we can actually measure: lots of mantle-derived basalts and lots of meteorites. Cutting out some important caveats, the result of their model is quite a surprise: ‘Year Zero’ on their account was between 4426 and 4417 Ma years ago, which is astonishingly precise. And it is pretty close to the measured age of the of lunar Highland anorthosites – products of fractional crystallisation of the Moon’s early magma ocean – and also to that of the oldest zircons on Earth. But is also about 60 Ma later than previous estimates

The Connelly and Bizzarro paper follows hard on the heels of another with much the same objective  (Snape, J.F. and 8 others 2016. Lunar basalt chronology, mantle differentiation and implications for  determining the age of the Moon. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 451, p. 149-158. doi.org/10.1016/j.epsl.2016.07.026). Once again omitting a great deal of argument, Snape and colleagues end up with an age for the isotopic resetting of the lunar mantle of 4376 Ma to the nearest 18 Ma; i.e. an age significantly different from that arrived at by Connelly and Bizzarro. So the answer to the question, ‘When was there a vestige of a beginning?’ is, ‘It depends on the model’… Thankfully, neither estimate for ‘Year Zero’ has much bearing on the big, practical questions, such as, ‘When did life form?’, ‘Has there always been plate tectonics?’

Climatic conditions for early hominin evolution

Until about 1.8 Ma ago, when early Homo erectus and perhaps other archaic hominins strode into Eurasia, our forerunners lived and evolved on only one continent – Africa. The physical and environmental conditions underlying the steps from a common ancestor with modern chimpanzees through a growing number of upright species are not well charted by the Pliocene and early Pleistocene terrestrial evidence. All that is know of this formative period is that global climate cooled in an oscillating fashion that culminated in the onset of Northern Hemisphere glaciations in the late Pliocene (~3 Ma) and a shift to drier conditions in East Africa around 2.8 Ma suggested by pollen records off the east coast. Marine sediments of the Indian Ocean, Red Sea and Gulf of Aden still offer the most convenient means of charting environmental change in detail for this crucial episode in human history. As well as oxygen-isotope and pollen-type variations, modern core analysis offers a growing number of wind-blown proxies for onshore vegetation. These include organic geochemistry plus carbon and hydrogen isotopes from trace amounts of leaf waxes. During the May to September East African Monsoon, high speed winds in the upper atmosphere drag dusty continental air from the East African Rift System over the Gulf of Aden, making sea-floor sediment an important target for tracking variations in the proxies (Liddy, H.M. et al. 2016.  Cooling and drying in northeast Africa across the Pliocene.  Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 449, p. 430-438. doi:10.1016/j.epsl.2016.05.005). Hannah Liddy and colleagues from the Universities of Southern California and Arizona, USA, applied these techniques to a Gulf of Aden core from offshore Somaliland to open a window on this crucial period.

Early history of hominin evolution and evidence for climate change in East Africa. Based on a diagram at the handprint.com website

Early history of hominin evolution and evidence for climate change in East Africa. Based on a diagram at the handprint.com website and in Stepping Stones Chapter 22

Early Pliocene East Africa (5.3 to 4.3 Ma), the time of Ardepithecus ramidus, was characterized by evidence for a climate wet enough to sustain grasses and riverine woodlands. Yet around 4.3 Ma conditions had shifted to ecosystems more dominated by shrubby plants able to thrive in more arid conditions. At about that time the earliest australopithecines appear in the fossil record, with A. anamensis. Yet the later Pliocene was not devoid of grasses or herbivores. There is ample carbon-isotope evidence from the teeth of hominins that shows that after 3.4 Ma the diet of A. afarensis and A. africanus included increasing amounts whose carbon derived from grasses, when. This apparent paradox can be explained by a major turn to eating meat from herbivores as vegetable foods declined with increasing aridity. This is all very interesting, especially the detailed record of δ13C in plant waxes, but there is little to indicate that steps in hominin speciation or extinction had much direct connection with fluctuations in climatic conditions. Environmental change may have formed a background to other influences that may have been wholly down to early hominin’s social and technological behaviour.

Salt and Earth’s atmosphere

It is widely known that glacial ice contains a record of Earth’s changing atmospheric composition in the form of bubbles trapped when the ice formed. That is fine for investigations going back about a million years, in particular those that deal with past climate change. Obviously going back to the composition of air tens or hundreds of million years ago cannot use such a handy, direct source of data, but has relied on a range of indirect proxies. These include the number of pores or stomata on fossil plant leaves for CO2, variations in sulfur isotopes for oxygen content and so on. Variation over time of the atmosphere’s content of oxygen has vexed geoscientists a great deal, partly because it has probably been tied to biological evolution: forming by some kind of oxygenic photosynthesis and being essential for the rise to dominance of eukaryotic animals such as ourselves. Its presence or absence also has had a large bearing on weathering and the associated dissolution or precipitation of a variety of elements, predominantly iron. Despite progressively more clever proxies to indicate the presence of oxygen, and intricate geochemical theory through which its former concentration can be modelled, the lack of an opportunity to calibrate any of the models has been a source of deep frustration and acrimony among researchers.

Yet as is often said, there are more ways of getting rid of cats than drowning them in butter. The search has been on for materials that trap air in much the same way as does ice, and one popular, if elusive target has been the bubbles in crystals of evaporite minerals. The trouble is that most halite deposits formed by precipitation of NaCl from highly concentrated brines in evaporating lakes or restricted marine inlets. As a result the bubbles contain liquids that do a grand job of preserving aqueous geochemistry but leave a lot of doubt as regards the provenance of gases trapped within them. For that to be a sample of air rather than gases once dissolved in trapped liquid, the salt needs to have crystallized above the water surface. That may be possible if salt forms from brines so dense that crystals are able to float, or perhaps where minerals such as gypsum form as soil moisture is drawn upwards by capillary action to form ‘desert roses’. A multinational team, led by Nigel Blamey of Brock University in Canada, has published results from Neoproterozoic halite whose chevron-like crystals suggest subaerial formation (Blamey, N.J.F. and 7 others, 2016. Paradigm shift in determining Neoproterozoic atmospheric oxygen. Geology, v. 44, p. 651-654). Multiple analyses of five halite samples from an ~815 Ma-old horizon in a drill core from the Neoproterozoic Canning Basin of Western Australia contained about 11% by volume of oxygen, compared with 25% from Cretaceous salt from China, 20% of late-Miocene age from Italy, and 19 to 22% from samples modern salt of the same type.

Salar de Atacama salt flat in the Chilean puna

Evaporite salts in the Salar de Atacama Chile (credit: Wikipedia)

Although the Neoproterozoic result is only about half that present in modern air, it contradicts results that stem from proxy approaches, which suggest a significant rise in atmospheric oxygenation from 2 to about 18% during the younger Cryogenian and Ediacaran Periods of the Neoproterozoic, when marine animal life made explosive developments at the time of repeated Snowball Earth events. Whether or not this approach can be extended back to the Great Oxygenation Event at around 2.3 Ga ago and before depends on finding evaporite minerals that fit stringent criteria for having formed at the surface: older deposits are known even from the Archaean.

Stepping Stones relaunch on-line

In 2000 I was approached by Ian Francis, then a commissioning editor at Blackwell Science if I would like to write a series of news items on advances in Earth Science for the publishers’ new website Earth-Pages. The invitation stemmed from his having read my recently published book Stepping Stones: The Making of Our Home World, which threaded a similar path through developments in the science that I helped to teach through the Open University. Ian’s initiative led to my learning a great deal by sifting through leading scientific journals, which became a weekly discipline. Much of what I commented on covered the eclectic spread of Stepping Stones, but I did not think of authoring a revised edition of the book until just a few years before I retired from the Open University in 2011. As they say; ‘what with one thing or another’ it took me another 7 or 8 years to galvanise myself for such a task. If you would like to have a look at the revised edition, it is now on-line at https://earthstep.wordpress.com/.

The famous 3.6 Ma old hominin footsteps at Laetoli in Tanzania – Stepping Stones emblematic image. (Credit: Mary Leakey)

The famous 3.6 Ma old hominin footsteps at Laetoli in Tanzania – Stepping Stones emblematic image. (Credit: Mary Leakey)

Deciding to produce it in electronic form it occurred to me to make it a possible means of geoscience self-teaching by various devices, such as suggesting key words and phrases to find more in-depth material through a web browser and, equally important, to find useful images. Fifteen years of working on over 800 posts for Earth-Pages and the publications that they were about made revising Stepping Stones a quicker task than I had anticipated. Then it dawned on me that I had written a lot more on various topics for Earth-Pages than I had in the new project. So the Earth-Pages archive is a possibly valuable learning resource, if you can navigate through it, which is not always easy. Being the source for most of the new additions to the book’s Further Reading in, inserting links from each reference to the appropriate post in the Earth-Pages archive was easy.

Oh, and another thing, so few published science authors gain satisfaction from royalties, I decided Stepping Stones v.2.0 should be free!

Impact factors: cat out of bag?

Two articles in the 14 July issue of Nature make interesting reading for those concerned about many universities’  and education ministries’ enthusiasm for bibliometrics as proxies for research excellence (E-P, January 2015) and their place in the academic equivalent of the Guides Michelin’s star system. Such institutions have become increasingly obsessed by ‘impact factors’. These are a metric applied to individual science journals, and are really quite simple: the average number of citations that articles published by a journal in the previous two years have received in the current year. So, it is supposed, if you get a paper published in a journal with a high impact factor, that can be deemed to be a ‘good thing’; it must it be more excellent than one published in a journal with a lower impact factor. That is a statistically very naive view. Indeed the first article by Nature regular Ewen Callaway (Callaway, E., 2016. Publishing elite turns against impact factor. Nature, v. 535, p. 210-211) implies that it is downright stupid. Citations do not follow a normal distribution; the majority of papers receive far fewer entries in reference lists than the mean of all those published, and that stats have a long tail towards papers with very large numbers of citations. The impact factor is strongly biassed by the much smaller number of papers the ‘go viral’, generally because they excite interest and often point many researchers in new directions. Take the top two science journals, Nature and Science: respectively their impact factors this year are 38.1 and 34.7, but in both 75% of all papers that they published cited less times than the mean. Indeed, a fair number got no citations at all. PLoS Genetics, an on-line, open-access journal of the Public Library of Science, whose throughput of papers is far higher than those of both Nature and Science has a much lower impact value (6.7) but only 65% receive fewer that number citations.

But there seems to be something a bit more sinister going on, to do with massaging the citations for individual papers to give the impression of ‘high impact’ and a long ‘shelf life’ for their influence. The sort of ‘gaming’ that goes on is covered by Mario Biagioli, of the University of California, Davis (Biagioli, M., 2016. Watch out for cheats in the citation game. Nature, v. 535, p. 203). Would you believe that some authors supply journal editors with e-mail addresses for ‘sock-puppet’ peer reviewers to get into print in the first place, and suggest additional references to other work by the authors? There’s more, with rings that effectively trade fake reviews in exchange for citations of the reviewers papers; a lot worse than the familiar practice of self citation. It isn’t necessarily the case that such papers are themselves fraudulent in some way, but to milk the citations cow and tart-up CVs. Biagioli believes that this tendency emerges partly from the drive towards collaborative papers with huge numbers of authors, which again institutions demand in order to be able to say that its research output is international in scope and ‘world-leading’, without being transparently hyperbolic. But skillful individuals can build up bloated reputations with relatively little effort; it’s also possible to guess who they might be. Properly unmasking what Biagioli terms ‘post-production misconduct’ is possible, but only by mining journal databases for evidence, which takes a lot of time. Some of this data analysis is done by journals themselves, pour encourager les autres I suppose, but rarely reported. Biagioli mentions new watchdog groups, Retraction Watch and PubPeer, the latter fostering post-production peer review. But such groups may themselves be gamed, because the ‘pursuit of excellence’ has a competitive side too: overweeningly ambitious academics have tended, until recently, to do the ‘proper thing’ by stabbing one another in the chest in plain view …

Here is the plate tectonic forecast

As computing power and speed have grown ever more sophisticated models of dynamic phenomena have emerged, particularly those that focus on meteorology and climatology. Weather and climate models apply to the thin spherical shell that constitutes Earth’s atmosphere. They consider incoming solar radiation and longer wavelength thermal radiation emitted by the surface sources and sinks of available power, linked to the convective circulation of energy and matter, most importantly water as gas, aerosols, liquid and ice in atmosphere and oceans. Such general circulation models depend on immensely complex equations that relate to the motions of viscous media on a rotating sphere, modulated by other aspects of the outermost Earth: the absorptive and reflective properties of the materials from which it is composed – air, rocks, soils, vegetation, water in liquid, solid and gaseous forms; different means whereby energy is shifted – speeds of currents and wind, adiabatic heating and cooling, latent heat, specific heat capacity of materials and more still. The models also have to take into account the complex forms taken by circulation on account of Coriolis’ Effect, density variations in air and oceans, and the topography of land and ocean floor. The phrase ‘and much more besides’ isn’t really adequate for such an enormous turmoil, for the whole caboodle has chaotic tendencies in time as well as 3-D space. The fact that such modelling does enable weather forecasting that we can believe together with meaningful forward and backward ‘snapshots’ of overall climate depends on increasing amounts of empirical data about what is happening, where and when. Models of this kind are also increasingly able to address issues of why such and such outcomes occur, an important example being the teleconnections between major weather events around the globe and phenomena such as the El Nino-Southern Oscillation – the periodic fluctuation of ocean movements, winds and sea-surface temperatures over the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean.

The key principle of plate tectonics is that t...

The Earth’s 15 largest tectonic plates. (credit: Wikipedia)

The Earth’s lithosphere and deeper mantle in essence present much the same challenge to modellers. Silicate materials circulate convectively in a thick spherical shell so that radiogenic heat and some from core formation can escape to keep the planet in thermal balance.  There are differences, the obvious ones being sheer scale and a vastly more sluggish pace, but most important are the interactions between materials with very different viscosities; the ability of the deep mantle to move by plastic deformation while the lithosphere moves as rigid, brittle plates. For geophysicists interested in modelling there are other differences; information that bears on the system is orders of magnitude less, its precision is much poorer and all of it is based on measurement of proxies. For instance, information on temperature comes from variations in seismic wave speed given by analysis of arrival times at surface observatories of different kinds of wave emitted by individual earthquakes. That is, from seismic tomography, itself a product of immensely complex computation. Temptation by computing power and the basic equations of fluid dynamics, however, has proved hard to resist and the first results of a general circulation model for the solid Earth have emerged (Mallard, C. et al. 2016. Subduction controls the distribution and fragmentation of Earth’s tectonic plates. Nature, v. 535, p. 140-143).

As the title suggests, the authors’ main objective was understanding what controls the variety of lithospheric tectonic plates, particularly how strain becomes localised at plate boundaries. They used a circulation model for an idealised planet and examined several levels of a plastic limit at which the rigidity of the lithosphere drops to localise strain. At low levels the lithosphere develops many plate boundaries, and as the plastic limit increases so the lithosphere ends up with increasingly fewer plates and eventually a rigid ‘lid’. The modelling also identified divergent and convergent margins, i.e. mid-ocean ridges and subduction zones. The splitting in two of a single plate must form two triple junctions, whose type is defined by the kinds of plate boundary that meet: ridges; subduction zones; transform faults. Both the Earth and the models show significantly more triple junctions associated with subduction than with extension, despite the fact that ridges extend further than do subduction zones. And these trench-associated triple junctions are mainly those dividing smaller plates. This suggests that it is subduction that focuses fragmentation of the lithosphere, and the degree of fragmentation is controlled by the lithosphere’s strength. There is probably a feedback between mantle convection and lithosphere strength, suggesting that an earlier, hotter Earth had more plates but operated with fewer, larger plates as it cooled to the present. But that idea is not new at all, although the modelling gives support to what was once mere conjecture.

Bury the beast in basalt

Global warming cannot simply be reversed by turning off the tap of fossil fuel burning. Two centuries’ worth of accumulated anthropogenic carbon dioxide would continue to trap solar energy, even supposing that an immediate shutdown of emissions was feasible; a pure fantasy for any kind of society hooked on coal, oil and gas. It takes too long for natural processes to download CO2 from the atmosphere into oceans, living organic matter or, ultimately, back once more into geological storage. In the carbon cycle, it has been estimated that an individual molecule of the gas returns to one of these ‘sinks’ in about 30 to 95 years. But that is going on all the time for both natural and anthropogenic emissions. Despite the fact that annual human emissions are at present only about 4.5 % of the amount emitted by natural processes, clearly the drawdown processes in the carbon cycle are incapable of balancing them, at present. Currently the anthropogenic excess of CO2 over that in the pre-industrial atmosphere is more than 100 parts per million achieved in only 250 years or so. The record of natural CO2 levels measured in cores through polar ice caps suggests that natural processes would take between 5 to 20 thousand years to achieve a reduction of that amount.
Whatever happens as regards international pledges to reduce emissions, such as those reported by the Paris Agreement, so called ‘net-zero emissions’ leave the planet still a lot warmer than it would be in the ‘natural course of things’. This is why actively attempting to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide may be the most important thing on the real agenda. The means of carbon sequestration that is most widely touted is pumping emissions from fossil fuel burning into deep geological storage (carbon capture and storage or CCS), but oddly that did not figure in the Paris Agreement, as I mentioned in EPN December 2015. In that post I noted that CCS promised by the actual emitters was not making much progress: a cost of US$50 to 100 per tonne sequestered makes most fossil fuel power stations unprofitable. Last week CCS hit the worlds headlines through reports that an Icelandic initiative to explore a permanent, leak-proof approach had made what appears to be a major breakthrough (Matter, J.M. and 17 others, 2016. Rapid carbon mineralization for permanent disposal of anthropogenic carbon dioxide emissions. Science, v. 352, p. 1312-1314). EPN January 2009 discussed the method that has now been tested in Iceland. It stems from the common observation that some of the minerals in mafic and ultramafic igneous rocks tend to breakdown in the presence of carbon dioxide dissolved in slightly acid water. The minerals are olivine ([Fe,Mg]2SiO4)] and pyroxene ([Fe,Mg]CaSi2O6), from whose breakdown the elements calcium and magnesium combine with CO2 to form carbonates.
Iceland is not short of basalts, being on the axial ridge of the North Atlantic. Surprisingly for a country that uses geothermal power to generate electricity it is not short of carbon dioxide either, as the hot steam contains large quantities of it. In 2012 the CarbFix experiment began to inject a 2 km deep basalt flow with 220 t of geothermal CO2 ‘spiked’ with 14C to check where the gas had ended up This was in two phases, each about 3 months long. After 18 months the pump that extracted groundwater directly from the lave flow for continuous monitoring of changes in the tracer and pH broke down. The fault was due to a build up of carbonate – a cause for astonishment and rapid evaluation of the data gathered. In just 18 months 95% of the 14C in the injected CO2 had been taken up by carbonation reactions. A similar injection experiment into the Snake River flood basalts in Washington State, USA, is said to have achieved similar results (not yet published). A test would be to drill core from the target flow to see if any carbonates containing the radioactive tracer filled either vesicles of cracks in the rock – some press reports have shown Icelandic basalt cores that contain carbonates, but no evidence that they contain the tracer .
Although this seems a much more beneficial use of well-injection than fracking, the problem is essentially the same as reinjection of carbon dioxide into old oil and gas fields; the high cost. Alternatives might be to spread basaltic or ultramafic gravel over large areas so that it reacts with CO2 dissolved in rainwater or to lay bear fresh rocks of that kind by removal of soil cover.

Kintisch, E., 2016. Underground injections turn carbon dioxide to stone. Science, v. 352, p. 1262-1263.

In a first, Iceland power plant turns carbon emissions to stone. Phys.org