Geosciences Column: From the desolate to the diverse, a story of volcanic succession

18 Jul

When a volcano erupts and spews lava onto the surrounding terrain, it is merciless in its destruction. All that is green on the land is engulfed in flame, or buried by an insurmountable mass of molten rock. Whatever charred remains of what lies beneath it will not see the light of day once the lava cools, turning the landscape into a barren black mass of solid basalt.

But volcanoes around the world are not barren basaltic masses. On the contrary, many volcanic slopes are teeming with life. Much of the Hawaiian archipelago is a tropical paradise, its older lava fields thick with forest and foliage. Likewise, Iceland’s flotilla of fiery peaks hasn’t rendered the land completely barren. So how does life return to the scene after an eruption?

Hardy grass on Surtsey’s black sands. (Credit: Ragnar Sigurdsson (arctic-images.com via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Hardy grass on Surtsey’s black sands. (Credit: Ragnar Sigurdsson (arctic-images.com via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The answer lies in a process known as succession. One by one, starting with the hardiest life forms, the lava is recolonised by wind-blown spores and seeds that have managed to make it from areas unharmed by the latest eruption. Over time, the growing community of plants attracts animals that bring further seeds to the site, either clinging desperately to their fur, or deployed stealthily in their droppings.

A long-term investigation of two very different volcanoes has revealed what allows the earliest arrivals to take hold: Surtsey, an isolated volcanic island in the North Atlantic, and Mount St. Helens, a once towering and peak in Washington State. The findings are published in Biogeosciences, an open access journal of the European Geosciences Union.

Surtsey’s arrival in 1963 (left, credit: NOAA) and Mount St Helens during the 1980 eruption (right, credit: Austin Post/USGS)

Surtsey’s arrival in 1963 (left, credit: NOAA) and Mount St Helens during the 1980 eruption (right, credit: Austin Post/USGS)

Surtsey emerged off the Icelandic coast in 1963 amid billowing plumes of ash and steam. Erupting from underwater, Surtsey created its own island – a fresh field of lava that has been consistently monitored since 1990. Mount St Helens erupted violently in 1980, after a catastrophic landslide triggered a volcanic blast so large that the volcano’s entire north flank, together with 370 square kilometres of forest, were obliterated. The resulting fields of pumice, tephra and lava provided a blank canvas for life to start afresh in the area.

Surtsey and Mout St Helens differ in terms of their age, the way they’re isolated, their climate and their size. But, despite these differences, scientists Roger del Moral and Borgþór Magnússon found the way vegetation first established itself followed the same fundamental principles, regardless of where it set up camp.

It’s all down to two different filters: isolation and stress. Isolation creates the biggest filter; meaning only the most well-travelled species can take hold. Then stress further sorts the species that can survive – well-travelled weaklings wouldn’t stand a chance in a place with incredibly poor fertility.

Birds make life a little easier for all involved, particularly in coastal areas, where an entire colony of birds can become established. These birds import nutrients from the surrounding sea by consuming fish from and depositing their waste on land. On Surtsey, these nutrient imports have meant the richest plant life has developed where the bird colonies are.

On Mount St Helens, winds carrying nutrient-laden dust created the first fertile material. This let a group of flowering plants known as lupines take hold and, after several cycles of lupine blooms, the ground became much more fertile. The areas where lupines bloom are now the most species rich.

Vegetation on Surtsey (top, credit: Borgþór Magnússon) and Mount St Helens (bottom, credit: Roger del Moral). Images on the left are areas where the rate of succession is slow, those on the right detail areas with a faster succession rate.

Vegetation on Surtsey (top, credit: Borgþór Magnússon) and Mount St Helens (bottom, credit: Roger del Moral). Images on the left are areas where the rate of succession is slow, those on the right detail areas with a faster succession rate.

In a world where environments are rapidly changing and species are having to move into new territories to adapt, these findings can help shed light on how plants could keep pace with the change as they shift from one site to the next.

By Sara Mynott, EGU Communications Officer

Reference:

del Moral, R. and Magnússon, B.: Surtsey and Mount St. Helens: a comparison of early succession rates, Biogeosciences, 11, 2099-2111, doi:10.5194/bg-11-2099-2014, 2014.

 

From paper to press release: making your research accessible to the wider public

16 Jul

During the General Assembly, EGU Media and Communications Manager Bárbara Ferreira shared her science writing skills and media know-how in a workshop demonstrating how to write a  press release or post about the latest geoscience. Here are her take-home messages…

“When you communicate science, no one else is more important than your audience.” Bárbara opened with one of the most fundamental points of science writing – you have to keep your audience engaged, and pitch your explanation at the perfect level for your peers, the press or the general public, depending on who you’re shooting for. The other fundamental: “read the paper!” was quick to follow.

The abstract, introduction and conclusion tell you almost everything you need to know to share the science effectively, but important points can still be found in other parts of the paper. Read it thoroughly and unleash the highlights in your writing – explain what’s exciting about the research and why your audience would be interested in it.

Introduction to Science Communication: from paper to press release (or blog post). View the full presentation here. (Credit: Bárbara Ferreira)

The presentation. Click the image or follow this link to view the full presentation. (Credit: Bárbara Ferreira)

If you have time, get in touch with the author. Not only can they check you’ve hit all the main points in your article, but they can also provide you with some juicy quotes to make the piece that much richer.

So how should you structure your post or press release to make sure you keep your readers engaged? Start with the main points – but don’t overstate the findings – and then move on to why the research is important and what the implications of the findings are. More detailed explanations follow. The example below sums up what you need to get across in the beginning of the text, particularly if you’re writing a press release (journalists are always busy so need the essential information at the start).

Before they even get there though, your reader has to be hooked by the title – make it snappy!

The essentials of the introduction – particularly pertinent to press releases. (Credit: Bárbara Ferreira)

The essentials of the introduction – particularly pertinent to press releases. (Credit: Bárbara Ferreira)

You’ve got the structure sorted, but what about content? Here are some of Bárbara’s top tips:

  • Assume your reader knows nothing about the research, but don’t assume they won’t understand it
  • Aim for one idea per sentence and one concept per paragraph to get your message across without overloading your audience with information
  • If you need to use jargon, explain what it means, and keep acronyms to the barest minimum
  • Use metaphors and everyday examples to share your message

Unlike this string of dos and don’ts, your article shouldn’t be a steam of facts. Create a story to guide the reader through the findings and, if you can, add a human element to the tale so readers can relate to it all that little bit better.

Once you’re done, fact-check, edit, proof and publish.

There are no hard and fast rules for science writing – this only a guide to get you going. If every science piece or release was written the same way, well, reading them would become a bit monotonous wouldn’t it? Break these rules, make your own, and keep writing until you find your own signature science communication style.

By Sara Mynott, EGU Communications Officer

Resources:

Imaggeo on Mondays: The most powerful waterfall in Europe

14 Jul

On the menu this Monday is the opportunity to indulge in some incredible Icelandic geology. Take a look at a tremendous waterfall and the beautiful basalt it cuts through…

Iceland is famous for its striking landscapes, from fiery volcanoes and fields of basalt to violent geysers and pools of the most fantastic blue. One of the country’s many geological gems is Dettifoss waterfall – a 100-metre-high mass of white, tumbling water within Vatnajökull National Park.

With about 200 cubic metres of water falling each second, Dettifoss is widely reported to be the most powerful waterfall in Europe. It certainly looks the part.

Dettifoss waterfall, Iceland (Credit: Neil Davies, via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Dettifoss waterfall, Iceland (Credit: Neil Davies, via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Dettifoss is fed by melt from the Vatna Glacier (Vatnajökull), and the spring spike in meltwater means the fall’s flow can reach some 1500 cubic metres per second. By putting your hand to the rocks beside the fall you can feel the thundering torrents as the basalt vibrates beneath your fingertips.

The Jökulsá river snakes through the park’s volcanic canyons, which are constantly being cut by the erosive force of the fall. Dettifoss isn’t the only great feature in this photo though: the canyon walls are layered with lava flows that – even at a glance – reveal when they were deposited. The relatively smooth deposit at the base of the wall and the thinner skin of smooth basalt in the middle are the product of interglacial eruptions. The two rough, blocky-looking layers are columnar basalt deposits – a feature that forms when lava meets ice and cools so rapidly that it fractures into long, hexagonal columns.

Dettifoss up close. (Credit: Roger McLassus)

Dettifoss up close. (Credit: Roger McLassus)

For many geoscientists, Iceland is the top spot on the geological destination list. If you went to Iceland, where would you go? Been before? Tell the tale. We’d love to hear from you.

By Sara Mynott, EGU Communications Officer

Reference:

Bamlett, M., and Potter, J. F.: Icelandic geology: an explanatory excursion guide based on a 1986 Field Meeting. Proceedings of the Geologists’ Association 99.3, 221-248, 1988.

Imaggeo is the EGU’s open access geosciences image repository. Photos uploaded to Imaggeo can be used by scientists, the press and the public provided the original author is credited. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. You can submit your photos here.

Imaggeo on Mondays: Turkey’s cotton castle

7 Jul

This week, Imaggeo on Mondays is brought to you by Josep Ubalde, who transports us to a wonderful site in western Turkey: a city of hot springs and ancient ruins dubbed cotton castle, after the voluminous white rocks that spread from the spring’s centre…

Pamukkale is lies in Turkey’s inner Aegean region, within an active fault that favours the formation of hot springs. The spring’s hot waters were once used by the ancient Greco-Roman city of Hierapolis, the remains of which sit atop Pamukkale. The entire area – city, springs and all – was declared a World Heritage site in 1988.

Travertine terraces in Pamukkale, Turkey (Credit: Josep M. Ubalde via imaggeo.egu.eu)

Travertine terraces in Pamukkale, Turkey (Credit: Josep M. Ubalde via imaggeo.egu.eu)

The materials that make up Pamukkale are travertines, sedimentary rocks deposited by water from a hot spring. Here, the spring water follows a 320-metre-long channel to the head of the travertine ridge before falling onto large terraces, each of which are about 60-70 metres long.

The travertines are formed in cascading pools that step down in a series of natural white balconies. These travertines are 300 metres high and their shape and colour lend them the name Pamukkale, meaning “cotton castle”.

At its source, the water temperature ranges between 35 and 60 degrees Celsius, and it contains a high concentration of calcium carbonate (over 80 ppm). When this carbonate-rich water comes into contact with the air, it evaporates and leaves deposits of calcium carbonate behind. Initially, the deposits are like a soft jelly, but over the time they harden to form the solid terraces you see here.

Putting Pamukkale into perspective (Credit: Josep M. Ubalde)

Putting Pamukkale into perspective (Credit: Josep M. Ubalde)

These travertines have been forming for the last 400,000 years. The rate they form is affected by weather conditions, ambient temperature, and the duration of water flow from the spring. It is estimated that 500 milligrams of calcium carbonate is deposited on the travertine for every litre of water. Today, thermal water is released over the terraces in a controlled programme to help preserve this natural wonder. You can no longer walk on them, but they are beautiful to behold.

By Josep M. Ubalde, Soil Scientist, Miguel Torres Winery

Imaggeo is the EGU’s open access geosciences image repository. Photos uploaded to Imaggeo can be used by scientists, the press and the public provided the original author is credited. Photographers also retain full rights of use, as Imaggeo images are licensed and distributed by the EGU under a Creative Commons licence. You can submit your photos here.

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