Tag Archive for Earth and Environmental Sciences

Earth and Environmental Science Seniors Conduct Research in Hawaii

Sixteen earth and environmental science majors from the Class of 2020 recently conducted field research in Hawaii as part of their Senior Field Research course.

The class, E&ES 498, is taught by Tim Ku, chair and associate professor of earth and environmental sciences, and Suzanne O’Connell, professor of earth and environmental sciences. The course is open to students who completed E&ES 497: Senior Seminar, and focuses on improving scientific research skills.

Past classes have conducted research in Death Valley, Calif., the main island of Puerto Rico, the Connecticut River Valley, and the Big Island of Hawaii. The field research took place on the Big Island of Hawaii on Jan. 5-12 and the course concluded with student group presentations on March 3 and 5 and written reports.

The trip was funded by the Lawrence H. Davis ’76 Fund.

The students and their project titles are below:

Emmy Hughes, Avery Kaplan, Haley Brumberger, and Shuo Wang worked on a project titled "Assessing Microplastic Accumulation and Distribution on Four Beaches in Hawaii.

Shuo Wang, Haley Brumberger, Emmy Hughes,and Avery Kaplan worked on a project titled “Assessing Microplastic Accumulation and Distribution on Four Beaches in Hawaii.”

Emily Litz, Jackie Duckett, Miles Brooks, Katie Toner, and Allegra Grant worked together on a project titled "Coffee Soils: Carbon Source or Sink?"

Emily Litz, Jackie Duckett, Katie Toner, Miles Brooks, and Allegra Grant worked together on a project titled “Coffee Soils: Carbon Source or Sink?”

$6M in NASA Funding Awarded to Projects with Contributions by Gilmore

NASA has selected four Discovery Program investigations to develop concept studies for new missions

NASA has selected four Discovery Program investigations to develop concept studies for new spacecraft missions. Wesleyan Professor Martha Gilmore is a science team member on two of these missions. Pictured is an artist concept of the solar system courtesy of NASA.

Marty Gilmore

Martha Gilmore

Not one, but two spacecraft mission concepts co-developed by Martha Gilmore, George I. Seney Professor of Geology and professor of earth and environmental sciences, received second-round backing from NASA’s Discovery Program on Feb. 13. Both concepts—which were awarded $3 million each—would assess whether Venus was ever a habitable planet by examining its landscape, rocks, and atmosphere.

NASA’s Discovery Program, now in its ninth year, funds investigations to develop concept studies for new missions. Although they’re not official missions yet, the selections focus on compelling targets and science that are not covered by NASA’s active missions or recent selections. Gilmore’s projects were among four selected.

“Venus is the key to understanding how Earth-size planets evolve. Like Earth, we predict Venus had an ocean that may have lasted for billions of years. Like Earth, Venus may be volcanically and tectonically active today. These missions will target the modern and ancient history of Venus, as recorded in the rocks and the atmosphere. The oldest rocks on Venus are my speciality, and I would very much like to know what environment they record.” Gilmore said.

Gilmore Works on Planetarium Show at American Museum of Natural History

worlds beyond earthResearch conducted by a Wesleyan professor is part of a new space show at the American Museum of Natural History.

Martha Gilmore

Martha GIlmore.

Martha Gilmore, George I. Seney Professor of Geology and professor of Earth and environmental sciences, worked over the past year developing content for the new Hayden Planetarium Space Show Worlds Beyond Earth. The show opened on Jan. 21 as part of the museum’s 150th anniversary celebration.

“It’s amazing,” Gilmore says. “The images that you see are all realistic. We even contacted some of the engineers for the Magellan spacecraft in order to understand exactly how the spacecraft imaged Venus in the early 1990s.”

Featuring brilliant visualizations of distant worlds, groundbreaking space missions, and scenes depicting the evolution of our solar system, Worlds Beyond Earth “takes viewers on an exhilarating journey that reveals the surprisingly dynamic nature of the worlds that orbit our Sun and the unique conditions that make life on our planet possible,” according to the American Museum of Natural History’s website.

Over the year, Gilmore worked with fellow Earth and planetary scientists, science visualization experts, writers, and artists to turn data into a visual masterpiece displayed on the world’s most advanced planetarium projection system. Gilmore’s specific task was to share the story of Venus having once been a habitable planet.

“The idea that Mars, Venus, and Earth were all habitable four billion years ago, but only Earth remains—that’s what I presented to them, and it’s really nice to see that story in the most famous planetarium show in the country!”

Gilmore

Wesleyan alumnus Mark Popinchalk ’13 and Martha Gilmore mingled at the Worlds Beyond Earth preview event.

On Jan. 15, Gilmore was invited to the museum for a sneak preview of the show. Other Wesleyan affiliates in attendance included James Greenwood, assistant professor of Earth and environmental sciences; Anne Canty ’84, senior vice president for communications at the museum; and Gilmore’s former student and museum science educator Mark Popinchalk ’13.

Gilmore also is one of three scientists featured in a short movie that will be played in the waiting area of the planetarium.

The show “is just gorgeous,” Gilmore said. “What I appreciate now is that the data you see in the show are correct—the spacecraft orbits, the positions of the planets and stars, the magnetic field data, etc. It’s an incredible amount of work to make that happen. If you see it and wait for the credits to roll on the dome, you’ll see my name and Wesleyan!”

Gilmore’s Paper on Venus’s Volcanoes Published in Science Advances

Martha Gilmore

Martha GIlmore

Martha “Marty” Gilmore, George I. Seney Professor of Geology, professor of earth and environmental sciences, is the author of a research article titled “Present-day volcanism on Venus as evidenced from weathering rates of olivine,” published in Science Advances Vol. 6 on Jan. 3, 2020.

According to the paper’s abstract:

At least some of Venus’ lava flows are thought to be <2.5 million years old based on visible to near-infrared (VNIR) emissivity measured by the Venus Express spacecraft. However, the exact ages of these flows are poorly constrained because the rate at which olivine alters at Venus surface conditions, and how that alteration affects VNIR spectra, remains unknown. We obtained VNIR reflectance spectra of natural olivine that was altered and oxidized in the laboratory. We show that olivine becomes coated, within days, with alteration products, primarily hematite (Fe2O3). With increasing alteration, the VNIR 1000-nm absorption, characteristic of olivine, also weakens within days. Our results indicate that lava flows lacking VNIR features due to hematite are no more than several years old. Therefore, Venus is volcanically active now.

The research was mentioned in Science Alert and Universe Today.

Thomas: Carbon Impact—Not Volcanism—Key in Driving the Cretaceous Mass Extinction

Thomas

Ellen Thomas

(By Kayleigh Schweiker ’22)

As scientific study regarding the mass extinction of marine life during the Cretaceous era has progressed, theories including extraterrestrial impact and intense volcanism have surfaced. However, a recent study co-authored by Ellen Thomas, Harold T. Stearns Professor of Integrative Sciences, suggests that carbon impact—not volcanism—was key in driving the Cretaceous mass extinction.

In a paper titled “Rapid ocean acidification and protracted Earth system recovery followed the end-Cretaceous Chicxulub impact,” which was published in the Oct. 21 issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), Thomas and her colleagues discuss how increases in ocean acidity played a driving force in the mass extinction of marine organisms. This mass extinction, labeled the “Crustaceous-Palogene die-off,” or the K-Pg event, led approximately 75% of plant and animal life on Earth to extinction. Though scientists have suggested that the presence of sulphuric acid proceeding the crash may have caused ocean pH levels to drop, Thomas and her team’s research on this topic reveals a different possibility.

NASA Funds Study of Gilmore’s Venus Mission Concept

Martha Gilmore

Martha Gilmore, the George I. Seney Professor of Geology, professor of earth and environmental sciences, believes we have a lot to learn from studying Venus—yet the United States has not sent a mission to the Earth-sized planet since the early 1990s. That’s why Gilmore has proposed a major flagship mission concept study to assess whether Venus was ever a habitable planet by looking at its rocks and atmosphere.

In October, NASA agreed to fund the planetary mission concept on Venus submitted by Gilmore, a planetary geologist, and colleagues at several other institutions, who come from varied disciplines. Gilmore, who is the principal investigator, said NASA received 54 proposals and selected 10 to feed into the next Planetary Decadal Survey. Theirs was the only proposal on Venus to receive funding.

In 2020, the National Academy of Science will convene a panel of scientists and engineers to determine the scientific priorities for Planetary Science over the period 2023–2032. This Planetary Decadal Survey is conducted every 10 years and is tasked with recommending a portfolio of missions to NASA. The mission concepts that were funded will be developed for consideration by the Decadal Survey. In the coming months, Gilmore will be meeting and communicating regularly with her science team and conducting mission design runs at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. Final reports are due to the Decadal Survey in June 2020, and will describe mission architecture, cost, and how the mission will address the scientific priorities of the Decadal Survey and NASA.

Gilmore’s expertise is on the surface morphology and composition of Venus, Mars, and Earth, and her PhD focused on Venus during the United States’ Magellan mission. She explained that all three planets are rocky, and there is evidence that they all had oceans early in solar system history. Scientists believe that Mars’s ocean dried up first—within about one billion years—and that Venus’s ocean may have lasted for two or three billion years.

“Thus, for most of solar system history, there were two Earth-sized planets with oceans,” said Gilmore. “Was Venus habitable like the Earth and if so, what changed?”

“Bomb Cyclone” Strikes Campus on Oct. 17, Causing Extremely Low Pressure, High Winds

weather station

The Wesleyan University Weather Station measures wind speed, barometric pressure, air temperature, relative humidity, and solar irradiance.

On Oct. 17, the Wesleyan Weather Station recorded a dramatic drop in atmospheric (barometric) pressure—a drop so severe it compared to one from Hurricane Sandy in November 2012.

Between 2 a.m. on Oct. 16 and 2 a.m. on Oct. 17, the pressure dropped from 1020 to 980 millibars, resulting in what meteorologists refer to as bombogenesis or a “bomb cyclone.” Bomb cyclones are defined by a drop of more than 24 millibars of pressure over less than 24 hours, and here, the pressure dropped 40 millibars.

During Hurricane Sandy the pressure also dropped to 980 millibars.

“We’ve looked through the last three years of data collected by the Wesleyan Weather Station, and no other event over that time period is more dramatic than this one,” said Dana Royer, professor of earth and environmental sciences. “This clearly shows that the bomb cyclone this month was indeed unusual.”

In Hartford, Conn., the pressure minimum (~980 millibars, similar to the pressure the Wesleyan Weather Station recorded) tied the all-time record for the month of October.

The bomb cyclone also affected wind speed. Between 1 and 2 a.m. on Oct. 17, wind rapidly increased from 0 to 34 mph and fluctuated between 5 and 25 mph over the next 24 hours.

The Wesleyan Weather Station was established with a Teaching Innovation Grant from President Michael Roth and Johan “Joop” Varekamp, the Harold T. Stearns Professor of Earth Science. The station and weather “dashboard” is maintained by Joel LaBella, facilities manager for the Earth and Environmental Sciences Department.

bomb cyclone

The Wesleyan Weather Station recorded the dramatic drop in atmospheric pressure on Oct. 17. This graph shows the average air pressure from the last 30 days.

bomb cyclone

During the bomb cyclone, the Wesleyan Weather Station recorded the drastic fall in atmospheric pressure and the rapid rise in wind speed.

O’Connell in The Conversation: How Deep is the Ocean?

Wesleyan faculty frequently publish articles based on their scholarship in The Conversation US, a nonprofit news organization with the tagline “Academic rigor, journalistic flair.” Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Suzanne O’Connell has written a new article for The Conversation’s “Curious Kids” series answering the question “How deep is the ocean?” The article is based on her research studying the sea floor.

Curious Kids: How deep is the ocean?

The remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer captures images of a newly discovered hydrothermal vent field in the western Pacific. NOAA

The remotely operated vehicle Deep Discoverer captures images of a newly discovered hydrothermal vent field in the western Pacific. (NOAA)

Explorers started making navigation charts showing how wide the ocean was more than 500 years ago. But it’s much harder to calculate how deep it is.

If you wanted to measure the depth of a pool or lake, you could tie a weight to a string, lower it to the bottom, then pull it up and measure the wet part of the string. In the ocean you would need a rope thousands of feet long.

In 1872 the HMS Challenger, a British Navy ship, set sail to learn about the ocean, including its depth. It carried 181 miles (291 kilometers) of rope.

During their four-year voyage, the Challenger crew collected samples of rocks, mud and animals from many different areas of the ocean. They also found one of the deepest zones, in the western Pacific, the Mariana Trench, which stretches for 1,580 miles (2,540 kilometers).

O’Connell Works with International Scientists to Collect Sediment Cores from Scotia Sea

JOIDES

The JOIDES Resolution at the pier in Punta Arenas, Chile. (Credit: Thomas Ronge & IODP)

Suzanne O'Connell

Suzanne O’Connell

As campus was winding down for spring break last semester, Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Suzanne O’Connell was packing her bags for a two-month expedition in the Scotia Sea, just north of the Antarctic Peninsula, to drill for marine sediment miles below the ocean waves.

On her ninth expedition since 1980, O’Connell was one of 30 international scientists working 12 hours a day, seven days a week, navigating “Iceberg Alley” aboard the JOIDES Resolution research vessel. It is the only ship in the world with coring tools powerful enough to extract both soft sediment and hard rock from the ocean floor.

At five carefully selected sites the ship stopped, and—provided the vicinity was iceberg-free—scientists lowered coring equipment through an opening in the floor of the ship to drill 0.5 to 2.5 miles down through the water and into the ocean sediment. After two hours, the equipment (which uses an action similar to that of coring an apple), would bring back the 31-foot-long core. Back on board, the cores were cut into 1.5-meter segments and then split lengthwise to reveal a layer cake of preserved mineral and organic sediment, each layer representing a snapshot of the ocean floor from a moment in geologic history.

Yang ’21 Participates in NSF-Sponsored Workshop on Antarctic History

Donglai Yang ’21 worked at the University of Arizona this summer on a project titled “Cenozoic detrital record offshore Dronning Maud Land.” His workshop concluded on July 8.

For two weeks this summer, Donglai Yang ’21 used isotope dating of rocks, minerals, and sediments from the Weddell Sea near Antarctica to determine the age of a section of Earth’s southernmost continent.

Yang, an earth and environmental sciences and physics double major, was selected as one of 10 undergraduate and graduate students from around the world to participate in the National Science Foundation–sponsored Antarctichron/Chronothon 2019 workshop held June 24 to July 8 at the University of Arizona.

The workshop introduced participants to geo- and thermochronology through some applications to the geology of Antarctica. Students learned to analyze and interpret their own samples and data in the context of their own research projects.

Yang’s study focused on the “Cenozoic detrital record offshore Dronning Maud Land,” a Norwegian territory that makes up approximately 1/6 of Antarctica. He specifically studied rock and sediment fragments that broke away from a landmass.

“These sediments were deposited around 30 million years ago, but the minerals within that layer of sediments have diverse ages,” he said. “Those minerals are scraped directly from the Antarctic bedrock by glaciers so their ages bear complicated terrestrial thermal history.”

During the workshop, Yang participated in informal lectures and discussions and learned the fundamentals of radioisotopic dating, laboratory techniques, analytical instrumentation, basics of thermochronologic modeling, and the geology of Antarctica. Core samples were provided by the International Ocean Discovery Program sediment core repository and the fellowship also was supported by Wesleyan’s College of the Environment.

Yang’s advisor, Suzanne O’Connell, professor of earth and environmental sciences, initially introduced Yang to the concept of radiometric dating in geosciences.

“I was fascinated at once,” he said. “Its current applications have far transcended its use since its advent when, about a hundred years ago, scientists finally managed to fathom the absolute age of the Earth.”

Now with a much-expanded understanding of the kinetics in multiple decay systems, questions that arise from almost every single field in earth and environmental sciences become resolvable to varying extents, Yang explained. “On top of this, our sedimentology lab reckons it a valuable opportunity to bring in some new techniques as we have rarely dealt with unstable isotopes in minerals before.”

After Yang graduates from Wesleyan, he plans on attending graduate school, conducting research in geophysics or geochemistry.

Herbst and Greenwood in The Conversation: The Tell-Tale Clue to How Meteorites Were Made

Wesleyan faculty frequently publish articles based on their scholarship in The Conversation US, a nonprofit news organization with the tagline, “Academic rigor, journalistic flair.” In a new article, John Monroe Van Vleck Professor of Astronomy Bill Herbst and Assistant Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences James Greenwood write about the model they’ve proposed for how the most common kind of meteorites form—a mystery that has dogged scientists for decades.

The tell-tale clue to how meteorites were made, at the birth of the solar system

April 26, 1803 was an unusual day in the small town of L’Aigle in Normandy, France – it rained rocks.

Over 3,000 of them fell out of the sky. Fortunately, no one was injured. The French Academy of Sciences investigated and proclaimed, based on many eyewitness stories and the unusual look of the rocks, that they had come from space.

The Earth is pummeled with rocks incessantly as it orbits the Sun, adding around 50 tons to our planet’s mass every day. Meteorites, as these rocks are called, are easy to find in deserts and on the ice plains of Antarctica, where they stick out like a sore thumb. They can even land in backyards, treasures hidden among ordinary terrestrial rocks. Amateurs and professionals collect meteorites, and the more interesting ones make it to museums and laboratories around the world for display and study. They are also bought and sold on eBay.

Despite decades of intense study by thousands of scientists, there is no general consensus on how most meteorites formed. As an astronomer and a geologist, we have recently developed a new theory of what happened during the formation of the solar system to create these valuable relics of our past. Since planets form out of collisions of these first rocks, this is an important part of the history of the Earth.

This meteor crater in Arizona was created 50,000 years ago when an iron meteorite struck the Earth. It is about one mile across. W. Herbst, CC BY-SA

This meteor crater in Arizona was created 50,000 years ago when an iron meteorite struck the Earth. It is about one mile across. (Photo by Bill Herbst, CC BY-SA)

The mysterious chondrules

Students Study Volcanic Soil, Map Historic Footprints in Hawai’i as Part of Their Senior Capstone Projects

 Left to right: Tim Ku (faculty), Celeste Smith, Jacqueline Buskop, John Sheffer, Ryan Nelson, Sara Wallace-Lee, Kelly Lam, and Phil Resor (faculty) at a newly formed black sand beach on Hawaii. The rocks on the left solidified in 2018.

At left, Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Tim Ku, Celeste Smith ’19, Jacqueline Buskop ’19, John Sheffer ’19, Ryan Nelson ’19, Sara Wallace-Lee ’19, Kelly Lam ’19, and Associate Professor of Earth and Environmental Sciences Phil Resor visit a newly formed black sand beach on Hawai’i. The rocks on the left solidified in 2018.

Six students majoring in earth and environmental sciences who said “aloha” to Hawai’i in January have completed their senior capstone project.

Seniors Jackie Buskop, John Sheffer, Kelly Lam, Sara Wallace-Lee, Ryan Nelson, and Celeste Smith traveled to the Big Island of Hawai’i Jan. 8-15 to conduct original, field-based research projects. They were accompanied by Associate Professors of Earth and Environmental Sciences Tim Ku and Phil Resor.

Prior to the trip, all six students enrolled in the fall semester course Senior Seminar E&ES 497, where they used the primary scientific literature to create hypothesis-driven research proposals. After collecting data in Hawai’i, the students enrolled in E&ES 498, where they analyzed and interpreted their data, and summarized their projects in journal article–style reports. On April 7, the students presented their results in short talks at the E&ES colloquium.

“Through this capstone sequence, students learn to develop and execute a research project from the initial idea through the planning, field collection, and data interpretation stages, and finally, how to synthesize this work into an illuminating presentation and written report,” Ku said. “We hope this capstone experience helps students transition to independent, professional scientists.”

Buskop, Sheffer, and Smith teamed up to work on a project titled “Inferences from 3D Modeling and Field Measurements of Human Footprints of the Ka’u Ash Desert (Kilauea, Hawai’i).”