Rock & Gem

Earth Science News


In the first half of 2021, I reported on one volcanic eruption after another. Well, it looks like I’ll be continuing to report on volcanoes so long as I’m writing these articles. For instance, here are two recent reports that appeared in the scientific literature…

Being able to predict when a volcano might blow its top is of major import for public safety when volcanoes are near populated areas. When it comes to the difficult science of predicting a volcanic eruption, earth scientists might measure substantia­l increase in earthquake­s and other seismic activity and/or they might use measuremen­ts of deformatio­n and bulging in the earth around a volcanic cone.

Writing in the journal Nature Geoscience, a team led by Társilo Girona (University of Alaska Fairbanks) has identified a new way to predict and warn of a potential volcanic eruption, giving earth scientists and public safety officials a new arrow in their quiver. Namely, they have cued into “large-scale thermal unrest,” or subtle but long-term increases in surface heat that can now be detected via Earthmonit­oring satellites.

In other news, Mount Nyiragongo in the Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to wreak havoc after an initial eruption that killed more than 30 people. Although its major eruptive events and fast-moving lava flows have stopped, some 400,000 evacuees remain forbidden to return home as small earthquake­s continue and dangers remain from toxic gases. Mount Nyiragongo is a classic and poignant example of the need to develop ever-better ways to monitor and predict volcanic eruptions.


A new U.S. Forest Service (USFS) road project near the notorious Mount St. Helens stratovolc­ano in Washington is in the planning stage. Developers suggest it could help avert flood risk in the area. Per an article in a recent issue of the journal Science, the road is intended to repair and service a tunnel draining nearby Spirit Lake to prevent potential flood events that could threaten tens of thousands of people should a natural debris dam created by the volcanic eruption collapse. Up to now, heavy constructi­on equipment has been helicopter­ed in, and the USFS says the new road presents a better option in the face of a major public safety issue.

“But hold on!” exclaim ecological research scientists.

When Mount St. Helens let loose with a mighty eruption in 1980, it created a blast zone of some 230 square miles. As devastatin­g as it was at the time, the big boom created a big boon for scientists studying ecological communitie­s and how they rebound after near-total disaster. In fact, nearly 1,000 research plots have been establishe­d in the blast zone to study the return of

plants and wildlife. These scientists say that the road project will cut right through 25 key research areas and that they were never consulted about the planned road. They also argue that the risk of catastroph­ic flooding is not as dire nor as imminent as USFS officials claim.

Who will prevail? Well, look to the courts. Several scientific and conservati­on groups have filed a lawsuit to prevent the road. Stay tuned! WHEN FLOWERING PLANTS FIRST BLOSSOMED

It’s all thanks to a coal mine in Inner Mongolia. With 125.6-million-year-old Early Cretaceous fossils pulled from that mine, scientists led by paleobotan­ist Gongle Shi (Chinese Academy of Sciences Nanjing Institute) have new insight into the origins of flowering plants, or angiosperm­s, as reported in a recent issue of the journal Nature.

Back in the day—think Dinosaur Days—gymnosperm­s such as ginkgoes, conifers and cycads dominated the landscape. But starting some 135 million years ago, angiosperm­s began taking root. Today, they dominate the land, numbering no fewer than 350,000 species!

Fossils from that Mongolian coal mine may prove to be the “missing link” connecting more ancient gymnosperm­s with today’s angiosperm­s. In particular, Shi’s team found well-preserved specimens of an extinct gymnosperm with double-coated seeds similar to today’s angiosperm seeds. Most gymnosperm seeds have just one outer protective coat, so this particular fossil plant may have been a forerunner of most plants on today’s Earth, given that it also had leaves and other traits more similar to angiosperm­s than gymnosperm­s.

Researcher­s are suggesting that these “transition­al” plants ought to be assigned to a whole new group: the angiophyte­s. “ROTTEN EGGS” HINT OF EARLY LIFE ON EARTH

“We noticed the intense smell of rotten eggs when we crushed them.” So said geobiologi­st Helge Mißbach (University of Cologne, Germany). Mißbach researches organic matter in truly ancient rocks and attempts to determine if such matter was created by biological or abiotic processes.

As reported in a recent issue of the journal Nature Communicat­ions, the rocks his team crushed were no less than 3.5 billion years old! Specifical­ly, they were barites from the Dresser Formation of Western Australia and were collected by a team centered at the University of Göttingen in Germany. That same formation holds fossilized “microbial mats,” and Mißbach’s team believes the organic matter found in the barite may have provided the nutrients for the microbes that produced those mats and that some of the gases may have been emitted as waste products after ingestion.

The barites formed around hydrotherm­al vents and captured fluids and gases in bubbles. Crushing the barites not only released a rotten egg smell but also allowed the researcher­s to identify such organic compounds and gases as acetic acid, methanethi­ol, carbon dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide.

Could all this have been part of some truly ancient Egg McMuffin feeding primordial life at the hydrotherm­al drive-through?

 ?? GETTYIMAGE­S ?? The Lava Lake inside the Volcanic Crater at the top of Mount Nyiragongo in Virunga National Park, Kibati near Goma, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa.
GETTYIMAGE­S The Lava Lake inside the Volcanic Crater at the top of Mount Nyiragongo in Virunga National Park, Kibati near Goma, North Kivu, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Africa.
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