Submarine landslides and formation of the East African Rift System

The East African Rift System (Credit: P.C. Neupane, M.Sc thesis 2011; Fig. 1)

East Africa is traversed from the Afar Depression in the north to Malawi in southern Africa by several great depressions bounded by active normal fault systems: grabens in the old terminology. They are regions of active crustal extension and thinning decorated by chains of active volcanoes. The last 50 years has witnessed more than 3400 major earthquakes (magnitude 4 to 7); unsurprising for the Earth’s largest active continental rift system. In Afar, the East African Rift system links to two others that have extended sufficiently to create oceanic crust: the Red Sea and the Gulf of Aden rifts. Afar is the site of the best documented tectonic triple junction. In Ethiopia, the rifting began after the whole of the Horn of Africa and Yemen had been smothered by continental flood basalts 30 Ma ago, during the Oligocene Epoch. The East African rifts are repositories for younger sediments that contain a continuous record of hominid evolution from about 5 Ma ago. This is no coincidence, for adjacent bulging of the continental crust resulted both from its unloading by thinning along the rifts and the buoyancy conferred by high heat flow in the mantle beneath. The uplifted areas have risen as high as 4 kilometres elevation (in Ethiopia), and present some of the world’s most spectacular land forms. This N-S barrier disrupted earlier climatic patterns that had much of tropical Africa blanketed by dense woodland and resulted in a strongly seasonal climate during the last few million years and the development of open savannah land. Put simply, open grassland with widely spaced trees was no place for diminutive forest apes to scamper on all-fours. Being able to leg-it nimbly on two gave the apes that developed such a gait a decisive evolutionary advantage: the rest, as they say, is human evolutionary history.

The extension and rapid uplift along the rift flanks to this day pose severe risk of landslides. Indeed, some are so large as to resemble fault blocks in their own right. Vast amounts of the upper crust have been stripped off by rapid erosion driven by the uplift. The debris has not only ended-up on the rift floors as sedimentary fill but far more has made its way eastward to be deposited on the Indian Ocean continental shelf. Until recently, piecing together the history of rifting and uplift has been restricted to the rifts themselves and their adjacent flanks. Such terrains have extremely complex and usually discontinuous geological sequences, so signs of the onset of extensional tectonics and uplift may differ from region to region. Agreement is limited to some time between 25 and 17 Ma. The whole tectonic process may, in fact, have begun at different times along the length of the rift. A clearer picture should emerge from studies of the post-30 Ma sedimentary pile along the Indian Ocean continent shelf. A sure-fire way of getting the needed data is from offshore areas that are prospective for oil and natural gas. Such is the case off the Tanzanian coastline at the southern limit of the rift system.

Seismic reflection profile parallel to the Tanzanian coastline with the Mafia mega-slide highlighted in green (Credit: Maselli et al. 2020; Fig. 5) Click to view full resolution

The Tanzania Petroleum Development Corporation and Shell have conducted seismic reflection surveys and drilled some test wells to the SE of Zanzibar Island, an area of major deposition from the eastward flowing Ruaha–Rufiji and Rovuma Rivers. Vittorio Maselli of Dalhousie University in Halifax Nova Scotia and colleagues from the UK, Italy and the Netherlands analysed a wealth of data from these surveys, to discover one of the biggest landslides on Earth (Maselli, V. and 10 others 2020. Large-scale mass wasting in the western Indian Ocean constrains onset of East African rifting. Nature Communications, v. 11, article 3456; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-020-17267-5). The Mafia mega-slide is represented in seismic profiles by a sedimentary unit, up to 300 m thick. It has a highly irregular base that cuts across strata in late-Oligocene to early-Miocene (25-23 Ma) sediments. It covers an area of more than 11,600 km2 and has a volume of at least 2500 km3. The unit’s upper surface is also irregular, suggesting that the unit’s thickness varies considerably. Younger sediments are draped across the irregular top of the slide body. In other, parallel sections the deposit is absent. Unlike the clearly bedded nature of sediments above and below it, the seismic response of the slide deposit is featureless, except for zones of chaotic stratification that reveal slump-folds. Nor is this the only sign of major submarine slides: there are others of lesser extent that predate the base of the Pliocene (5.3 Ma).

A mass movement of this magnitude would have generated a tsunami larger than that which possibly wiped out Mesolithic habitation on the east coast of Britain 8200 years ago due to the even larger Storegga Slide at the edge of the Norwegian continental shelf. The Mafia slide event would have flooded wide tracts of the East African coast. Its estimated age, between 22.9 to 19.8 Ma, is roughly coeval with the initiation of volcanism in the Tanzanian segment of the East African Rift and the onset of rifting and uplift of its flanks. It was probably launched by a major earthquake (>7 on the Richter scale). Such is the pace of current deposition and the thickness of sedimentary build-up since the Pliocene, there is a danger of future slides, albeit of lesser magnitude: the system continues to be seismically active, with recently recorded quakes offshore of Tanzania.

Turmoil in Roman Republic followed Alaskan volcanic eruption

That activities in the global political-economic system are now dramatically forcing change in natural systems is clear to all but the most obdurate. In turn, those changes increase the likelihood of a negative rebound on humanity from the natural world. In the first case, data from ice cores suggests that an anthropogenic influence on climate may have started with the spread of farming in Neolithic times. Metal pollution of soils had an even earlier start, first locally in Neanderthal hearths whose remains meet the present-day standards for contaminated soil, and more extensively once Bronze Age smelting of copper began. Global spread of anomalously high metal concentrations in atmospheric dusts shows up as ‘spikes’ in lead within Greenland ice cores during the period from 1100 BCE to 800 CE. This would have resulted mainly from ‘booms and busts’ in silver extraction from lead ores and the smelting of lead itself. In turn, that may reflect vagaries in the world economy of those times

Precise dating by counting annual ice layers reveals connections of Pb peaks and troughs with major historic events, beginning with the spread of Phoenician mining and then by Carthaginians and Romans, especially in the Iberian Peninsula. Lead reaches a sustained peak during the acme of the Roman Republic from 400 to 125 BC to collapse during widespread internal conflict during the Crisis of the Republic. That was resolved by the accession of Octavian/Augustus as Emperor in 31 BCE and his establishment of Pax Romana across an expanded empire. Lead levels rose to the highest of Classical Antiquity during the 1st and early 2nd centuries CE. Collapse following the devastating Antonine smallpox pandemic (165 to 193 CE) saw the ice-core records’ reflecting stagnation of coinage activity at low levels for some 400 years, during which the Empire contracted and changed focus from Rome to Constantinople. Only during the Early Medieval period did levels rise slowly to the previous peak.

The Okmok caldera on the Aleutian island of Umnak (Credit: Desert Research Institute, Reno, Nevada USA)

Earth-logs has previously summarised how natural events, mainly volcanic eruptions, had a profound influence in prehistory. The gigantic eruption of Toba in Sumatra (~73 ka ago) may have had a major influence on modern-humans migrating from Africa to Eurasia. The beginning of the end for Roman hegemony in the Eastern Mediterranean was the Plague of Justinian (541–549 CE), during which between 25 to 50 million people died of bubonic plague across the Eastern Empire. This dreadful event followed the onset of famine from Ireland to China, which was preceded by signs of climatic cooling from tree-ring records, and also with a peak of volcanogenic sulfate ions in the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps around 534 CE. Regional weakening of the populace by cold winters and food shortages, also preceded the Black Death of the mid-14th century. In the case of the Plague of Justinian, it seems massive volcanism resulted in global cooling over a protracted period, although the actual volcanoes have yet to be tracked down. Cooling marked the start of a century of further economic turmoil reflected by lead levels in ice cores (see above). Its historical context is the Early Medieval equivalent of world war between the Eastern Roman Empire, the Sassanid Empire of Persia and, eventually, the dramatic appearance on the scene of Islam and the Arabian, Syrian and Iraqi forces that it inspired (see: Holland, T. 2013. In the Shadow of the Sword: The battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World. Abacus, London)

An equally instructive case of massive volcanism underlying social, political and economic turmoil has emerged from the geochemical records in five Greenlandic ice cores and one from the Siberian island of Severnaya Zemlya (McConnell, J.R. and 19 others 2020. Extreme climate after massive eruption of Alaska’s Okmok volcano in 43 BCE and effects on the late Roman Republic and Ptolemaic Kingdom. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, recent article (22 June 2020); DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2002722117). In this case the focus was on ice layers in all six cores that contain sulfate spikes and, more importantly, abundant volcanic dust, specifically shards of igneous glass. Using layer counting, all six show major volcanism in the years 45 to 43 BCE. The Ides (15th) of March 44 BCE famously marked the assassination of Julius Caesar, two years after the Roman Republic’s Senate appointed him Dictator, following four years of civil war. This was in the later stages of the period of economic decline signified by the fall in ice-core levels of Pb (see above). The Roman commentator Servius reported “…after Caesar had been killed in the Senate on the day before, the sun’s light failed from the sixth hour until nightfall.” Other sources report similar daytime dimming, and unusually cold weather and famine in 43 and 42 BCE.

As well as pinning down the date and duration of the volcanic dust layers precisely (to the nearest month using laser scanning of the ice cores’ opacity), Joseph McConnell and the team members from the US, UK, Switzerland, Germany and Denmark also chemically analysed the minute glass shards from one of the Greenlandic ice cores. This has enabled them to identify a single volcano from 6 possible candidates for the eruption responsible for the cold snap: Okmok, an active, 8 km wide caldera in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska. Previous data suggest that its last major eruption was 2050 years ago and blasted out between 10 to 100 km3 of debris, including ash. Okmok is an appropriate candidate for a natural contributor to profound historic change in the Roman hegemony. The authors also use their ice-core data to model Okmok’s potential for climate change: it had a global reach in terms of temperature and precipitation anomalies. Historians may yet find further correlations of Okmok with events in other polities that kept annual records, such as China.

See also: Eruption of Alaska’s Okmok volcano linked to period of extreme cold in ancient Rome (Science Daily, 22 June 2020); Kornei, K. 2020. Ancient Rome was teetering. Then a volcano erupted 6,000 miles away. (New York Times, 22 June 2020)

Arsenic hazard on a global scale

I have been following the harrowing story of how arsenic gets into domestic water supplies for 20 years (see: Earth-logs Geohazards for 2002; 2003; 2004; 2005; 2006; 2008; 2009; 2011; 2013; 2017). In my opinion, it is the greatest natural hazard in terms of the numbers at risk of poisoning. In 2006 I wrote about the emergence in Bangladesh of arsenic poisoning on a huge scale during the mid 1990s for a now defunct Open University course. If people depend for drinking water on groundwater from tube wells driven into alluvium they would not know of the risk, unless the water is rigorously analysed for levels of As greater than 10 micrograms per litre (μg l-1), the WHO recommended maximum. The sad fact is that the affected population were advised to switch from surface water supplies, which carry a high risk of biological infection, to well water. That is because during downward percolation from the surface oxidation destroys bacteria and viruses as well as parasites. Opportunities provided by a massive UN-funded drilling programme and local well digging made the choice seemingly obvious. Most people came to prefer well water as gastro-intestinal infections and child mortality fell rapidly.

Arsenic adds no taste, which is why it was once the ‘poison of choice’. How it gets into groundwater is difficult to judge, unless wells are downflow of areas riddled with metal mines. Years of research uncovered an unsuspected mechanism. The most common colorant of mineral grains, and thus sedimentary rocks, is brownish iron hydroxide (goethite), and that is able to adsorb a range of dissolved elements, including arsenic. One would think, therefore, that groundwater should be made safe by such a natural ‘filtering’ process: indeed goethite can be used in decontamination. The problem is that iron hydroxide, which contains Fe-3, is only stable in water with a high capacity for oxidation. Under reducing conditions it breaks down to soluble Fe-2 and water, thereby releasing to solution any other element that it has adsorbed. In alluvium, beds containing organic matter are prone to this ‘reductive dissolution’ of goethite. If weathering upstream has released even seemingly insignificant amounts of arsenic during the build up of alluvium, there is a potential life-threatening problem as arsenic builds up in the goethite coating of sedimentary grains to become ‘locked in’, with the potential to be released in high concentrations if subsurface chemical conditions change. The colour of the alluvial sediments penetrated by wells is a clue. If they are reddish brown, groundwater is safe, if they are greyish and goethite-free then, ‘beware’. But it is rare to examine ‘cuttings’ from a drill site aimed at groundwater, unlike those aimed at ores or oil

Since the tragedy of Bangladesh, which resulted after 5 years or so in obvious signs of arsenicosis – dark wart-line keratoses on hands and feet or black blotches on facial and torso skin – several alluvial basins in large river systems have had their well water tested. But by no means all such basins have been screened in this way, and there are many less-obvious signs of arsenic poisoning. After long exposure to the lower range of dangerous arsenic levels a variety of cancers develop in known areas of arsenic risk. There are also high levels of endemic respiratory problems, cardiovascular disease, reduced intellectual development in children and even diabetes. Geochemical monitoring of all populated and farmed river systems is a huge task that is far beyond the resources of many countries through which they run. One approach to ‘screening’ for hazard or safety is to use geological, hydrological, soil, climate and topographic data. Those from known arsenic-prone basins and those where its levels are shown to be consistently below the 10 μg l-1 danger threshold help to develop a predictive model (Podgorski, J. & Berg, M. 2020. Global threat of arsenic in groundwater. Science, v. 368, p. 845-850; DOI: 10.1126/science.aba1510).

Modelled global probability of arsenic concentration in groundwater exceeding 10 μg l-1. Click to display a larger map in a separate browser tab. (credit: Podgorski & Berg; Fig 2A, with enhanced colour)

Rather than trying to model the full range of arsenic concentrations, Joel Podgorski and Michael Berg of the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology focussed on assessing probabilities that arsenic in well water exceeds the WHO recommended maximum safe level of 10 μg l-1. Their global map highlights areas of concern for environmental health. Thankfully, huge (blue) areas are suggested to present low risk, the pale, yellow, orange and red patches signifying areas of increasing concern. No populated continent is hazard-free. What is very clear is that Asia presents the greatest worries. Most of the Asian ‘hot zones’ are spatially close to large mountain ranges and plateaus. In the case of the Indus and Ganges-Brahmaputra plains the sources for excessive arsenic in groundwater implicated by previous geochemical investigations lie in the Himalaya. The factor common to all major hot spots seems to be rapid transport of huge amounts of sediment released by weathering from areas of high topographic relief, rather than local large-scale mining operations. There are hazardous areas related to historic and active mining, such as the Andes of Bolivia, Peru and Chile and the western USA, but they are tiny by comparison with the dominance of natural arsenic mobilisation.

Despite the WHO recommended maximum of 10 μg l-1 of arsenic, many countries base their policy on levels that are five times higher, largely because of the difficulty of analysing for the lower concentration without expensive analytical facilities. Field analyses are often done using simple semi-quantitative tests based on paper impregnated with reagents that show a colour range for different concentrations, which are unreliable for those lower than 100 μg l-1. Thankfully, despite the many risky areas, most of them have population densities less than 1 per km2.

If you are interested in the geological details of the arsenic problems of Bangladesh, the course text that I produced for the Open University (Drury, S. 2006. Water and well-being: arsenic in Bangladesh. The Open University: Milton Keynes, UK. ISBN 0-7492-1435-X), the course itself (S250 Science in Context) was withdrawn some years ago.  It may be possible to arrange a PDF for private use.

See also: Zheng, Y. 2020. Global solutions to a silent poison. Science, v. 368, p. 818-819; DOI: 10.1126/science.abb9746

The dilemma of Rwanda’s Lake Kivu

In 1986 the small, roughly circular Lake Nyos in the Cameroon highlands silently released a massive cloud of carbon dioxide. Being a dense gas it hugged the ground and flowed down valleys for up to 25 km. 1700 local people perished by suffocation, together with their livestock (See Geohazards 2000). Having a recent volcanic origin, the lake is fed by springs in its bed that contain dissolved CO2 emitted from the residual magma chamber below. At 200 m deep the bottom water is sufficiently pressurised to retain the dissolved gas so that signs of the potential hazard remain hidden until such a limnic eruption occurs. Far larger, with a surface area of 2700 km2, Lake Kivu bordered by Rwanda and The Democratic Republic of Congo, is even deeper (up to 470 m). It too lies within a volcanically active zone, in this case the western arm of the East African Rift System. Being one of the most nutrient-rich bodies of fresh water on Earth, its biological productivity is extremely high, so as well as bottom water enriched in dissolved CO2 – a staggering 256 km3 – methane (CH4) is also present in very large amounts (~65 km3). This comes partly from anaerobic decay of dead organisms and from microbial reduction of the magmatic CO2 passing through its bottom sediments. Sulfate-reducing bacteria also generate toxic hydrogen sulfide (H2S) in the anoxic bottom waters – Lake Nyos contains less dissolved salts and did not emit H2S.

So Kivu presents a far greater hazard than the volcanic lakes of Cameroon and an emission of a dense gas mixture might fill the rift valley in the area to a depth of about a hundred metres. Being highly fertile the valley around the lake has a high population (2 to 3 million), so the death toll from a limnic eruption could be huge. A further hazard stems from tsunamis generated by such gas bursts. Once bubbles form at depth the bulk density of water drops, so large masses of water surge to the surface rather than the gas itself; a phenomenon known to happen in the periodic eruptions of Lake Nyos. What might trigger such an event in Lake Kivu? The East African Rift System is seismically active, but recent earthquakes did not result in limnic eruptions. Subaqueous volcanic eruption is the most likely to set one off. A surface lava flow from the nearby Mount Nyiragongo entered the lake at the town of Goma in 2002 but, fortunately, did not reach the threatening deeper part of Kivu. Sediment samples from the lake reveal periodic transport of land vegetation to its deeper parts, roughly every thousand years. The sediments with plant fossils also contain abundant remains of aquatic animals, suggesting both tsunamis accompanied by toxic emissions.

KIVUWATT’s methane extraction rig on Lake Kivu. (Credit: Contour Global)

Mitigating the hazard of limnic eruptions at Lake Nyos was made possible in 2002 by linking its bottom waters to the surface by plastic piping. After initial pumping, the release of bubbles at shallower depths and the resulting fall in bulk water density set off something akin to a large soda siphon, slowly relieving the deeper layers of their load of dissolved CO2. This resulted in 50 m high fountains of what was effectively soda ‘pop’. In 2009 this was repeated on a far larger scale on Lake Kivu, the operation being paid for by separation and sale of methane. Yet even this attempt at mitigation has its risks: first of destabilising what may be a fragile equilibrium to trigger a limnic eruption; second by lifting nutrient-rich bottom water that would encourage algal blooms at the lake surface and potential deoxygenation. The current issue of the Journal of African Earth Sciences includes a detailed review of the issues surrounding such dual-purpose hazard mitigation (Hirslund, F. & Morkel, P. 2020. Managing the dangers in Lake Kivu – How and why. Journal of African Earth Sciences, v. 161, Article 103672; DOI: 10.1016/j.jafrearsci.2019.103672). By 2015 the Rwandan KivuWatt Methane Project had a capacity for 25 MW of electrical power generation.

Running at full capacity, degassing the depths of Lake Kivu would provide the economic benefit of low-cost electricity for Rwanda and the DRC, at a maximum generating capacity of 300 mW using the most efficient power plant, as well as removing the risk of a catastrophic gas release. Yet the release of CO2 from the lake and from methane burning would increase atmospheric greenhouse warming significantly, albeit less than if the methane was simply released, for CH4 has 25 times the potential for trapping outgoing heat. Hence the dilemma. Either way, there remains the risk of turning Kivu’s surface water into an anoxic algal ‘broth’ with devastating effects on its fishery potential. Burial of the dead phytoplankton, however, might generate more methane by bacterial decay; a possible source of renewable biofuel that ‘recycles’ the atmospheric CO2 consumed by algal photosynthesis. The geohazards, according to Hirslund and Morkel, are really the ultimate driver for development of Lake Kivu’s fossil fuel potential, now that they are better understood as a real and present danger to millions of people. The authors calculate that a catastrophic gas release may be on the cards in the late 21st century. Yet there are other resource issues bound up with the health of the lake’s surface waters. Preserving the layered structure of the lake water to some extent is also important. Until the rates of natural infiltration of volcanic CO2 and biogenic production of methane are known, a minimum rate of gas extraction to make the lake safe is impossible to calculate. Perhaps matching those rates with gas removal should govern future operation. The total methane content of Lake Kivu is just 1.5 times the annual production from the UK sector of the North Sea. It is sufficient for power generation at 300 MW, at most, for 50 years, which would roughly double Rwanda’s current installed generation capacity – mainly from hydropower. Although Kivu is shared equally between Rwanda and the DRC even half of the short term power potential would be a significant benefit to Rwanda’s ~11 million people, though considerably less to the ~81 million living in the DRC; if access was equitable.

Should you worry about being killed by a meteorite?

In 1994 Clark Chapman of the Planetary Science Institute in Arizona and David Morrison of NASA’s Ames Research Center in California published a paper that examined the statistical hazard of death by unnatural causes in the United States (Chapman, C. & Morrison, D. 1994. Impacts on the Earth by asteroids and comets: assessing the hazard. Nature, v. 367, p. 33–40; DOI:10.1038/367033a0). Specifically, they tried to place the risk of an individual being killed by a large asteroid (~2 km across) hitting the Earth in the context of more familiar unwelcome causes. Based on the then available data about near-Earth objects – those whose orbits around the Sun cross that of the Earth – they assessed the chances as ranging between 1 in 3,000 and 1 in 250,000; a chance of 1 in 20,000 being the most likely. The results from their complex calculations turned out to be pretty scary, though not as bad as dying in a car wreck, being murdered, burnt to death or accidentally shot. Asteroid-risk is about the same as electrocution, at the higher-risk end, but significantly higher than many other causes with which the American public are, unfortunately, familiar: air crash; flood; tornado and snake bite. The lowest asteroid-risk (1 in 250 thousand) is greater than death from fireworks, botulism or trichloroethylene in drinking water; the last being 1 in 10 million.

Chapman and Morrison cautioned against mass panic on a greater scale than Orson Welles’s 1938 CBS radio production of H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds allegedly resulted in. Asteroid and comet impacts are events likely to kill between 5,000 and several hundred million people each time they happen but they occur infrequently. Catastrophes at the low end, such as the 1908 Tunguska air burst over an uninhabited area in Siberia, are likely to happen once in a thousand years. At the high end, mass extinction impacts may occur once every hundred million years. As might be said by an Australian, ‘No worries, mate’! But you never know…

Michelle Knapp’s Chevrolet Malibu the morning after a stony-iron mmeteorite struck it. Bought for US$ 300, Michelle sold the car for US$ 25,000 and the meteorite fetched US$ 50,000 (credit: John Bortle)

How about ordinary meteorites that come in their thousands, especially when the Earth’s orbit takes it through the former paths taken by disintegrating comets? When I was a kid rumours spread that a motor cyclist had a narrow escape on the flatlands around Kingston-upon-Hull in East Yorkshire, when a meteorite landed in his sidecar: probably apocryphal. But Michelle Knapp of Peeskill, New York, USA had a job for the body shop when a 12 kg extraterrestrial object hit her Chevrolet Malibu, while it was parked in the driveway. In 1954, Ann Hodges of Sylacauga, Alabama was less fortunate during an afternoon nap on her sofa, when a 4 kg chondritic meteorite crashed through her house roof, hit a radiogram and bounced to smash into her upper thigh, badly bruising her. For an object that probably entered the atmosphere at about 15 km s-1, that was indeed a piece of good luck resulting from air’s viscous drag, the roof impact and energy lost to her radiogram. The offending projectile became a doorstop in the Hodge residence, before the family kindly donated it to the Alabama Museum of Natural History. Another fragment of the same meteorite, found in a field a few kilometres away, fetched US$ 728 per gram at Christie’s auction house in 2017. Perhaps the most unlucky man of the 21st century was an Indian bus driver who was killed by debris ejected when a meteorite struck the dirt track on which he was driving in Tamil Nadu in 2016 – three passengers were also injured. Even that is disputed, some claiming that the cause was an explosive device.

Risks of sudden changes linked to climate

The Earth system comprises a host of dynamic, interwoven components or subsystems. They involve processes deep within Earth’s interior, at its surface and in the atmosphere. Such processes combine inorganic chemistry, biology and physics. To describe them properly would require a multi-volume book; indeed an entire library, but even that would be even more incomplete than our understanding of human history and all the other social sciences. Cut to its fundamentals, Earth system science deals with – or tries to – a planetary engine. In it, the available energy from inside and from the Sun is continually shifted around to drive the bewildering variety, multiplicity of scales and variable paces of every process that makes our planet the most interesting thing in the entire universe. It has done so, with a variety of hiccups and monumental transformations, for some four and half billion years and looks likely to continue on its roiling way for about five billion more – with or without humanity. Though we occupy a tiny fraction of its history we have introduced a totally new subsystem that in several ways outpaces the speed and the magnitude of some chemical, physical and organic processes. For example: shifting mass (see the previous item, Sedimentary deposits of the ‘Anthropocene’); removing and modifying vegetation cover; emitting vast amounts of various compounds as a result of economic activity – the full list is huge. In such a complex natural system it is hardly surprising that rapidly increasing human activities in the last few centuries of our history have hitherto unforeseen effects on all the other components. The most rapidly fluctuating of the natural subsystems is that of climate, and it has been extraordinarily sensitive for the whole of Earth history.

Cartoon metaphor for a ‘tipping point’ as water is added to a bucket pivoted on a horizontal axis. As water level rises to below the axis the bucket becomes increasingly stable. Once the level rises above this pivot instability sets in until the syetem suddenly collapses

Within any dynamic, multifaceted system-component each contributing process may change, and in doing so throw the others out of kilter: there are ‘tipping points’. Such phenomena can be crudely visualised as a pivoted bucket into which water drips and escapes. While the water level remains below the pivot, the system is stable. Once it rises above that axis instability sets in; an external push can, if strong enough, tip the bucket and drain it rapidly. The higher the level rises the less of a push is needed. If no powerful push upsets the system the bucket continues filling. Eventually a state is reached when even a tiny force is able to result in catastrophe. One much cited hypothesis invokes a tipping point in the global climate system that began to allow the minuscule effect on insolation from changes in the eccentricity of Earth’s orbit to impose its roughly 100 ka frequency on the ups and downs of continental ice volume during the last 800 ka. In a recent issue of Nature a group of climate scientists based in the UK, Sweden, Germany, Denmark, Australia and China published a Comment on several potential tipping points in the climate system (Lenton, T.M. et al. 2019. Climate tipping points — too risky to bet against. Nature, v. 575, p. 592-595; DO!: 10.1038/d41586-019-03595-0). They list what they consider to be the most vulnerable to catastrophic change: loss of ice from the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets; melting of sea ice in the Arctic Ocean; loss of tropical and boreal forest; melting of permanently frozen ground at high northern latitudes; collapse of tropical coral reefs; ocean circulation in the North and South Atlantic.

The situation they describe makes dismal reading. The only certain aspect is the steadily mounting level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which boosts the retention of solar heat by delaying the escape of long-wave, thermal radiation from the Earth’s surface to outer space through the greenhouse effect. An ‘emergency’ – and there can be little doubt that one of more are just around the corner – is the product of ‘risk’ and ‘urgency’. Risk is the probability of an event times the damage it may cause. Urgency is the product of reaction time following an alert divided by the time left to intervene before catastrophe strikes. Not a formula designed to make us confident of the ‘powers’ of science! As the commentary points out, whereas scientists are aware of and have some data on a whole series of tipping points, their understanding is insufficient to ‘put numbers on’ These vital parameters. And there may be other tipping points that they are yet to recognise.  Another complicating factor is that in a complex system catastrophe in one component can cascade through all the others: a tipping may set off a ‘domino effect’ on all the others. An example is the steady and rapid melting of boreal permafrost. Frozen ground contains methane in the solid form of gas hydrate, which will release this ‘super-greenhouse’ gas as melting progresses.   Science ‘knows of’ such potential feedback loops in a largely untried, theoretical sense, which is simply not enough.

A tipping point that has a direct bearing on those of us who live around the North Atlantic resides in the way that water circulates in that vast basin. ‘Everyone knows about’ the Gulf Stream that ships warm surface water from equatorial latitudes to beyond the North Cape of Norway. It keeps NW Europe, otherwise subject to extremely cold winter temperatures, in a more equable state. In fact this northward flow of surface water and heat exerts controls on aspects of climate of the whole basin, such as the tracking of tropical storms and hurricanes, and the distribution of available moisture and thus rain- and snowfall. But the Gulf Steam also transports extra salt into the Arctic Ocean in the form of warm, more briny surface water. Its relatively high temperature prevents it from sinking, by reducing its density. Once at high latitudes, cooling allows Gulf-Steam water to sink to the bottom of the ocean, there to flow slowly southwards. This thermohaline circulation effectively ‘drags’ the Gulf Stream into its well-known course. Should it stop then so would the warming influence and the control it exerts on storm tracks. It has stopped in the past; many times. The general global cooling during the 100 ka that preceded the last ice age witnessed a series of lesser climate events. Each began with a sudden global warming followed by slow but intense cooling, then another warming to terminate these stadials or Dansgaard-Oeschger cycles (see: Review of thermohaline circulation, Earth-logs February 2002). The warming into the Holocene interglacial since about 20 ka was interrupted by a millennium of glacial cold between 12.9 and 11.7 ka, known as the Younger Dryas (see: On the edge of chaos in the Younger Dryas, Earth-logs May 2009). A widely supported hypothesis is that both kinds of major hiccup reflected shuts-down of the Gulf Stream due to sudden influxes of fresh water into North Atlantic surface water that reduced its density and ability to sink. Masses of fresh water are now flowing into the Arctic Ocean from melting of the Greenland ice sheet and thinning of Arctic sea ice (also a source of fresh water). Should the Greenland ice sheet collapse then similar conditions for shut-down may arise – rapid regional cooling amidst global warming – and similar consequences in the Southern Hemisphere from the collapse of parts of the Antarctic ice sheets and ice shelves.  Lenton et al. note that North Atlantic thermohaline circulation has undergone a 15% slowdown since the mid-twentieth century…

See also: Carrington, D. 2019. Climate emergency: world ‘may have crossed tipping points’ (Guardian, 27 November 2019)

Sedimentary deposits of the ‘Anthropocene’

Economic activity since the Industrial Revolution has dug up rock – ores, aggregate, building materials and coal. Holes in the ground are a signature of late-Modern humanity, even the 18th century borrow pits along the rural, single-track road that passes the hamlet where I live. Construction of every canal, railway, road, housing development, industrial estate and land reclaimed from swamps and sea during the last two and a half centuries involved earth and rock being pushed around to level their routes and sites. The world’s biggest machine, aside from CERN’s Large Hadron Collider near Geneva, is Hitachi’s Bertha the tunnel borer (33,000 t) currently driving tunnels for Seattle’s underground rapid transit system. But the record muck shifter is the 14,200 t MAN TAKRAF RB293 capable of moving about 220,000 t of sediment per day, currently in a German lignite mine. The scale of humans as geological agents has grown exponentially. We produce sedimentary sequences, but ones with structures that are very different from those in natural strata. In Britain alone the accumulation of excavated and shifted material has an estimated volume six times that of our largest natural feature, Ben Nevis in NW Scotland. On a global scale 57 billion t of rock and soil is moved annually, compared with the 22 billion t transported by all the world’s rivers. Humans have certainly left their mark in the geological record, even if we manage to reverse  terrestrial rapacity and stave off the social and natural collapse that now pose a major threat to our home planet.

A self propelled MAN TAKRAF bucketwheel excavator (Bagger 293) crossing a road in Germany to get from one lignite mine to another. (Credit: u/loerez, Reddit)

The holes in the ground have become a major physical resource, generating substantial profit for their owners from their infilling with waste of all kinds, dominated by domestic refuse. Unsurprisingly, large holes have become a dwindling resource in the same manner as metal ores. Yet these stupendous dumps contain a great deal of metals and other potentially useful material awaiting recovery in the eventuality that doing so would yield a profit, which presently seems a remote prospect. Such infill also poses environmental threats simply from its composition which is totally alien compared with common rock and sediment. Three types of infill common in the Netherlands, of which everyone is aware, have recently been assessed (Dijkstra, J.J. et al. 2019. The geological significance of novel anthropogenic materials: Deposits of industrial waste and by-products. Anthropocene, v. 28, Article 100229; DOI: 10.1016/j.ancene.2019.100229). These are: ash from the incineration of household waste; slags from metal smelting; builders’ waste. What unites them, aside from their sheer mass, is the fact that are each products of high-temperature conditions: anthropogenic metamorphic rocks, if you like. That makes them thermodynamically unstable under surface conditions, so they are likely to weather quickly if they are exposed at the surface or in contact with groundwater. And that poses threats of pollution of soil-, surface- and groundwater

All are highly alkaline, so they change environmental pH. Ash from waste incineration is akin to volcanic ash in that it contains a high proportion of complex glasses, which easily break down to clays and soluble products. Curiously, old dumps of ash often contain horizons of iron oxides and hydroxides, similar to the ‘iron pans’ in peaty soils. They form at contacts between oxidising and reducing conditions, such as the water table or at the interface with natural soils and rocks. Soluble salts of a variety of trace elements may accumulate, such copper, antimony and molybdenum. Slags not only contain anhydrous silicates rich in the metals of interest and other trace metals, which on weathering may yield soluble chromium and vanadium, but they also have high levels of calcium-rich compounds from the limestone flux used in smelting, i.e. agents able to create high alkalinity. Portland cement, perhaps the most common material in builders’ waste, is dominated by hydrated calcium-aluminium silicates that break-down if the concrete is crushed, again with highly alkaline products. Another component in demolition debris is gypsum from plaster, which can be a source of highly toxic hydrogen sulfide gas generated in anaerobic conditions by sulfate-sulfide reducing bacteria.

UK shale gas: fracking potential dramatically revised downwards

In 2013, much to the joy of the British government and the fracking industry, the British Geological Survey (BGS) declared that there was likely to be between 24 and 68 trillion m3 (TCM) of gas available to fracking ventures in the Carboniferous Bowland Shale, the most promising target in Britain. That is equivalent to up to about 90 years’ supply at the current UK demand for natural gas.  The BGS estimate was based on its huge archives of subsurface geology, including that of the Bowland Shale; they know where the rock is present and how much there is. But their calculations of potential gas reserves used data on the gas content of shales in the US where fracking has been booming for quite a while. Fracking depends on creating myriad cracks in a shale so that gas can escape what is an otherwise impermeable material.

Bowland Shale 1
Areas in Britain underlain by the Bowland Shale formation (credit: British Geological Survey)

How much gas might be available from a shale depends on its content of solid hydrocarbons (kerogen) and whether it has thermally matured and produced gas that remains locked within the rock. So a shale may be very rich in kerogen, but if it has not been heated to ‘maturity’ during burial it may contain no gas at all, and is therefore worthless for fracking. Likewise, a shale from which the gas has leaked away over millions of years. A reliable means of checking has only recently emerged. High-pressure water pyrolysis (HPWP) mimics the way in which oil and gas are generated during deep burial and then expelled as once deep rock is slowly uplifted (Whitelaw, P. et al. 2019. Shale gas reserve evaluation by laboratory pyrolysis and gas holding capacity consistent with field data. Nature Communications, v. 10, article 3659; DOI: 10.1038/s41467-019-11653-4). The authors from the University of Nottingham, BGS and a geochemical consulting company show that two samples of the Bowland Shale are much less promising than originally thought. Based on the HPWP results, it seems that the Bowland Shale as a whole may have gas reserves of only around 0.6 TCM of gas that may be recoverable from the estimated 4 TCM of gas that may reside in the shale formation as a whole. This is ‘considerably below 10 years supply at the current [UK] consumption’.

Unsurprisingly, the most prominent of the fracking companies, Cuadrilla, have dismissed the findings brusquely, despite having published analyses of other samples that consistent with results in this paper. Opinion in broader petroleum circles is that the only way of truly putting a number to potential reserves is to drill and frack many wells … The British government may well have a collective red face only a week after indicating that they were prepared to review regulation of fracking, which currently forces operations to stop if it causes seismic events above magnitude 0.5 on the Richter scale. A spokesperson for Greenpeace UK said that, ‘Fracking is our first post-truth industry, where there is no product, no profit and no prospect of either.’

See also: McGrath, M. 2019. Fracking: UK shale reserves may be smaller than previously estimated. (BBC News 20 August); Ambrose, J. 2019. Government’s shift to relax shale gas fracking safeguards condemned (Guardian 15 August); Fracking in the UK; will it happen? (Earth-logs June 2014)

Ecological hazards of ocean-floor mining

Spiralling prices for metals on the world market, especially those that are rare and involved in still-evolving technologies, together with depletion of onshore, high-grade reserves are beginning to make the opportunity of mining deep, ocean-floor resources attractive. By early 2018, fifteen companies had begun detailed economic assessment of one of the most remote swathes of the Pacific abyssal plains. In April 2018 (How rich are deep-sea resources?) I outlined the financial attractions and the ecological hazards of such ventures: both are substantial, to say the least. In Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) off Okinawa the potential economic bonanza has begun, with extraction from deep-water sulfide deposits of zinc equivalent to Japan’s annual demand for that metal, together with copper, gold and lead. One of the most economically attractive areas lies far from EEZs, beneath the East Pacific Ocean between the Clarion and Clipperton transform faults. It is a huge field littered by polymetallic nodules, formerly known as manganese nodules because Mn is the most abundant in them. A recent article spelled out the potential environmental hazards which exploiting the resources of this region might bring (Hefferman, O. 2019. Seabed mining is coming – bringing mineral riches and fears of epic extinctions. Nature, v. 571, p. 465-468; DOI: 10.1038/d41586-019-02242-y).

ocean floor resources
The distribution of potential ocean-floor metal-rich resources (Credit: Hefferman 2019)

Recording of the ecosystem on the 4 km deep floor of the Clarion-Clipperton Zone (CCZ) began in the 1970s. It is extraordinarily diverse for such a seemingly hostile environment. Despite its being dark, cold and with little oxygen, it supports a rich and unique diversity of more than 1000 species of worms, echinoderms, crustaceans, sponges, soft corals and a poorly known but probably huge variety of smaller animals and microbes inhabiting the mud itself. In 1989, marine scientists simulated the effect on the ecosystem of mining by using an 8-metre-wide plough harrow to break up the surface of a small plot. A plume of fine sediment rained down to smother the inhabitants of the plot and most of the 11 km2 surrounding it. Four subsequent visits up to 2015 revealed that recolonisation by its characteristic fauna has been so slow that the area has not recovered from the disturbance after three decades.

The International Seabed Authority (ISA), with reps from 169 maritime member-states, was created in 1994 by the United Nations to encourage and regulate ocean-floor mining; i.e. its function seems to be ‘both poacher and gamekeeper’. In 25 years, the ISA has approved only exploration activities and has yet to agree on an environmental protection code, such is the diversity of diplomatic interests and the lack of ecological data on which to base it. Of the 29 approved exploration licences, 16 are in the CCZ and span about 20% of it, one involving British companies has an area of 55,000 km2. ISA still has no plans to test the impact of the giant harvesting vehicles needed for commercial mining, and its stated intent is to keep only 30% of the CCZ free of mining ‘to protect biodiversity’. The worry among oceanographers and conservationists is that ISA will create a regulatory system without addressing the hazards properly. Commercial and technological planning is well advanced but stalled by the lack of a regulatory system as well as wariness because of the huge start-up costs in an entirely new economic venture.

The obvious concern for marine ecosystems is the extent of disturbance and ecosystem impact, both over time and as regards scale. The main problem lies in the particles that make up ocean-floor sediments, which are dominated by clay-size particles. The size of sedimentary particles considered to be clays ranges between 2.0 and 0.06 μm. According to Stokes Law, a clay particle at the high end of the clay-size range with a diameter of 2 μm  has a settling speed in water of 2 μm s-1. The settling speed for the smallest clays is 1,000 time slower. So, even the largest clay particles injected only 100 m above the ocean floor would take 1.6 years to settle back to the ocean floor – if the water column was absolutely still. But even the 4,000 m deep abyssal plains are not at all stil, because of the ocean-water ‘conveyor belt’ driven by thermohaline circulation. An upward component of this flow would extend the time during which disturbed ocean-floor mud remains in suspension – if that component was a mere >2 μm s-1, even the largest clay particles would remain suspended indefinitely. Deepwater currents, albeit slow, would also disperse the plume of fines over much larger areas than those being mined. Moreover such turbidity pollution is likely to occur at the ocean surface as well, if the mining vessels processed the ore materials by washing nodules free of attached clay. Plumes from shipboard processing would be dispersed much further because of the greater speed of shallow currents. This would impact the upper and middling depths of the oceans that support even more diverse and, in the case of mid-depths poorly known, ecosystems Such plumes may settle only after decades or even centuries, if at all.

Processing on land, obviously, presents the same risk for near-shore waters. It may be said that such pollution could be controlled easily by settling ponds, as used in most conventional mines on land. But the ‘fines’ produced by milling hard ores are mainly silt-sized particles (2.0 to 60 μm) of waste minerals, such as quartz, whose settling speeds are proportional to the square of their diameter; thus a doubling in particle size results in four-times faster settling. The mainly clay-sized fines in deep-ocean ores would settle far more slowly, even in shallow ponds, than the rate at which they are added by ongoing ore processing; chances are, they would eventually be released either accidentally or deliberately

A mining code is expected in 2020, in which operating licences are likely to be for 30 years. Unlike the enforced allowance of environmental restoration once a land-based mining operation is approved, the sheer scale, longevity and mobility of fine-sediment plumes seem unlikely to be resolvable, however strong such environmental-protection clauses are for mining the ocean floor.

Frack me nicely?

‘There’s a seaside place they call Blackpool that’s famous for fresh air and fun’. Well, maybe, not any more. If you, dear weekender couples, lie still after the ‘fun’ the Earth may yet move for you. Not much, I’ll admit, for British fracking regulations permit Cuadrilla, who have a drill rig at nearby Preston New Road on the Fylde coastal plain of NW England, only to trigger earthquakes with a magnitude less than 0.5 on the Richter scale. This condition was applied after early drilling by Cuadrilla had stimulated earthquakes up to magnitude 3. To the glee of anti-fracking groups the magnitude 0.5 limit has been regularly exceeded, thereby thwarting Cuadrilla’s ambitions from time to time. Leaving aside the view of professional geologists that the pickings for fracked shale gas in Britain [June 2014] are meagre, the methods deployed in hydraulic fracturing of gas-prone shales do pose seismic risks. Geology, beneath the Fylde is about as simple as it gets in tectonically tortured Britain. There are no active faults, and no significant dormant ones near the surface that have moved since about 250 Ma ago; most of Britain is riven by major fault lines, some of which are occasionally active, especially in prospective shale-gas basins near the Pennines. When petroleum companies are bent on fracking they use a drilling technology that allows one site to sink several wells that bend with depth to travel almost horizontally through the target shale rock. A water-based fluid containing a mix of polymers and surfactants to make it slick, plus fine sand or ceramic particles, are pumped at very high pressures into the rock. Joints and bedding in the shale are thus forced open and maintained in that condition by the sandy material, so that gas and even light oil can accumulate and flow up the drill stems to the surface. Continue reading “Frack me nicely?”