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The first major geologic map turns 200

Before there were rock stars, one man put them on the map. That man was William “Strata” Smith, and his map of the rocks at the surface in England, Wales, and part of Scotland—completed in 1815—was the first major geologic map ever made. Smith wasn’t a wealthy aristocrat, free to pursue his interests. He wasn’t even a trained geologist. He oversaw the digging of canals and drainage ditches. But those who dig discover what is buried.

He saw that the English bedrock was not just a random jumble, but that there was an order to the layers, an order that stretched across the country. And so he gradually put together a map, revealing the record of deep history that lies beneath the soil. Part of his insight was the recognition that fossils could be used to correlate layers of the same age, even if many miles separated the places where they could be inspected.

Given its importance to the history of geology, Smith’s story can be found in many books about the history of science, as well as Simon Winchester’s popular The Map That Changed the World. In honor of the 200th anniversary of his historic map, Tom Sharpe of Cardiff University’s Lyme Regis Museum penned an article about William Smith for the journal Science, which you can read here.

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Fruitful fossil database targeted by US House Science Committee

When groups of people come together and pool their resources, great things can be accomplished (flinging humans onto the Moon comes to mind). In the US, the National Science Foundation is a factory of great things. It guides billions of tax dollars into university research projects each year (in 2015, $7.344 billion to be exact). And since science costs money, one unhappy necessity of the academic lifestyle is securing funding to keep the lights on and the lab running. (Give a kid a grant-writing kit to go with their chemistry set for Christmas. See if they play with it.) NSF grants are the lifeblood of many fields of science.

Getting a grant isn’t easy. In 2012, for example, NSF reviewed more than 48,000 grant proposals—each representing work that researchers were chomping at the bit to do. Less than 12,000 won approval. A number of researchers volunteer their time each year to go review grant proposals in their field, recommending the proposals they feel to be the best use of the money budgeted for their discipline. As is generally the case with peer review of papers for scientific journals, the reviewers remain anonymous. (“Oh, hi Jane! Say, I see you shot down the proposal I’ve been working toward for a decade…”)

Recently, the US House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology, led by Texas Representative Lamar Smith, has tussled with NSF over research that Rep. Smith felt was a waste of funding. That included a broad effort to alter the criteria NSF used in judging grants to ensure they are “in the national interest,” but it also involved attempts to probe the approval of individual grants. Rep. Smith requested access to all documents pertaining to certain grants, including the peer reviews NSF closely guards as confidential. NSF was not pleased with these requests. Neither was the Association of American Universities.

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2014 was the hottest year on record globally

After lots of speculation during the year, we can finally call it: 2014 was globally the hottest year on record in both the NASA and NOAA datasets, as well as the Japanese Meteorological Agency’s analysis. (The UK Met Office has not yet released its numbers.)

NASA and NOAA made the announcement today after tallying the data from December. As seen in the image above, the eastern US had a cooler year—and the western US and pretty much the entire rest of the planet were quite warm—so personal experiences will vary. But that’s why we calculate global averages. Taking land area alone, 2014 wasn’t quite tops (it's #4 in NOAA’s dataset), but warm oceans put the global average over the previous record.

NASA measures their temperatures relative to a baseline of the average temperature between 1951 and 1980. By that measure, 2014 has continued a stretch where we haven't seen a month below that average since 1994. The last entire year that was below that average was 1976.

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Stable climate demands most fossil fuels stay in the ground, but whose?

In the abstract, moving away from fossil fuels sounds relatively straightforward. But the closer you look, the more complex the challenge appears. How quickly do we have to kick the fossil fuel habit? Should developing nations forego the artery-clogging feast of dirty energy that other nations used to fuel their development? And how much coal, oil, and gas will each nation have to leave in the ground—potential profits notwithstanding?

In a new study, University College London researchers Christophe McGlade and Paul Ekins examine that last question. The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report concluded that between 2011 and 2050, we can only emit around 1,000 gigatons of CO2 if we want to limit warming to 2°C above preindustrial temperatures, which governments have pledged to do. Current fossil fuel reserves—the known amount of fossil fuels that can be produced at a reasonable profit today—equal almost 3,000 gigatons of CO2. Adding in the fossil fuels that are not economically viable today but probably could be eventually brings that number up in the neighborhood of 11,000 gigatons.

That means a whole lot of fossil fuels need to stay in the ground. The researchers ran simulations with economic models to find the mix of fossil fuels that maximizes the economic benefit to each country while still staying below 1,000 gigatons of CO2. They took into account the costs of producing various types of coal, natural gas, and oil as well as the cost of bringing it to market in each region. In the end, they produced estimates of how much of each region's reserves should be considered “unburnable” in this economically optimized scenario.

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Weaker winds and warmer waters in early 20th century

Much has been made of the likely role played by winds over the Pacific in the slower increase of global average surface air temperatures over the last decade or so. The string of La Niñas they've generated, during which colder-than-average patches of water sit at the surface in the eastern equatorial Pacific, have created a time where the deeper ocean warms at the expense of the atmosphere.

This isn’t just relevant to the 2000s. While the long-term warming trend over the last century is clear, there are swings around that trend that researchers have studied to better understand the climate system. From the 1940s through the 1960s, most noticeably, the warming took a little break. There’s rarely a singular cause for things like this, but at least two have jumped out: a temporary increase in sunlight-reflecting air pollution and the same strong trade winds over the Pacific that have been blowing recently.

Could these winds have been a factor before that? The first part of the 20th century saw about 0.4 degrees Celsius of warming, despite the fact that anthropogenic CO2 emissions hadn’t really taken off yet. Other factors help tidy up the math. Solar activity was on the increase then, which is part of the answer, and a volcanically quiet time probably meant a little more sunlight reached the Earth. That still doesn’t quite get us to the warming that occurred, though.

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Watching lava fight with snow in Kamchatka

Depending on the context, volcanic eruptions are either terrifying or transfixing—sometimes both, but rarely neither. The opportunity to safely view the otherworldly spectacle of lava rarely fails to ignite a child-like, giddy wonder. The damage currently being done by a lava flows in the Cape Verde Islands, on the other hand, is heart-breaking.

We study these things because they are both lovely and terrible. We want to see a lava flow spill across a snowfield out of curiosity, and we want to better understand the hazards surrounding snow-capped volcanoes out of caution. Benjamin Edwards of Dickinson College and Alexander Belousov and Marina Belousova of Russia’s Institute of Volcanology and Seismology got the opportunity to witness one of these events last year in Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. For nine months, Tolbachik spewed basaltic lava flows that ultimately covered 40 square kilometers, reaching as far as 17 kilometers from their source.

The lava flows came in two flavors, known to geologists by Hawaiian names. (While frozen Kamchatka doesn’t exactly evoke coconuts and grass skirts, these lavas are similar to those of the Hawaiian volcanoes.) First there’s ‘a’a (pronounced as a staccato “AH-ah”), which ends up a chunky, blocky crumble of basalt. The other is pahoehoe (roughly “puh-HOY-hoy”, which is how volcanologists answer the phone), which flows more like thick batter and can solidify into a surface resembling a pile of ropes.

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Record of past warming event shows carbon was emitted fast—and twice

Periods of rapid change are among the most interesting things in the geologic record, but that rapidity also makes them hard to study. While 10,000 years sounds like an eternity to us, it’s just a blip in the humbling expanse of Earth’s history. The stories that rocks can tell usually cover too much time to reveal all the details of a blip that short, which challenges geologists’ detective skills.

The Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM to its friends) occurred about 10 million years after the extinction of the dinosaurs and 56 million years before the present. It involved the addition of enough carbon to Earth’s atmosphere to cause 5-8°C of global warming, which lasted almost 200,000 years. That caused a considerable amount of change in the biosphere, including a mass extinction among a group of bottom-dwelling marine organisms. Given that we’re also messing with the climate system today, we have good reason to be curious about the warming of the PETM.

This is too far in the past for ice cores to help us out, so our evidence comes in the form of carbon isotopes in rocks, which preserve the isotopic signature of carbon in atmospheric CO2 back then. That isotopic signature suddenly made a large jump at the start of the PETM and stayed there for the duration. Because the jump is so radical, many researchers think that sources of methane (which have isotopic signatures much different from most atmospheric CO2 carbon) are likely to be the culprits. But how rapid was the jump? Many records can’t tell us much about that—it happened so quickly that it just looks like a step change. Some estimates put it at 20,000 years, while others indicate that it could have been much shorter.

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Emit some CO2? Its warming influence should peak in about a decade

The time frames of climate change challenge us in a number of ways. For one thing, it’s difficult to personally experience changes in climate in an obvious and reliable way. (Our sense and memories are a little less precise than thermometers.) And it’s hard to feel a sense of urgency about something changing gradually, especially when the benefits of dealing with it also accrue gradually. Imagine convincing a four-year-old that cleaning his or her room would be a worthwhile investment of Saturday mornings if you had to add “but it’s going to take a couple years before you’ll notice a difference.” You might as well be pitching the joys of early bedtimes and adventurous diets.

If you believe you won’t live to see the benefits of any cuts made in greenhouse gas emissions today, a selfish case for action is harder to make. So will any of us see any difference as a result of cutbacks in emissions?

A popular 2010 post on the website approached this question from the opposite direction, presenting an estimate for how long it takes to realize the warming from emitted CO2. Largely because the ocean takes up heat slowly, the full force of that greenhouse warming isn’t felt immediately. That post threw out 40 years as an estimate for the lag between emissions and perceptible warming, based on a 1985 paper’s calculation for the time to reach 60 percent of the long-term warming. However, that number was based on a scenario in which CO2 increases and then stays constant.

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Why are some Antarctic ice shelves feeling warmer than others?

In terms of remoteness, Antarctica has got most places on this planet beat. Climate data from the frozen continent are mostly hard-won. So while we know that warmer seawater below ice shelves has played a big role in the tremendous loss of glacial ice behind them, working out exactly why that water has warmed as much as it has is a challenge.

To that end, Sunke Schmidtko, Karen Heywood, Andrew Thompson, and Shigeru Aoki compiled all the available ocean measurements back to 1975, spanning seven databases. That enables them to pick out some longer-term trends and spatial patterns all the way around Antarctica, which hasn’t been done before. Measurements prior to the 1990s are pretty sparse, but some interesting things stand out nonetheless.

Ice shelves are the floating, leading edge of glaciers that flow into the ocean, and many act to hold back their glaciers. So while melting a floating ice shelf doesn’t directly affect sea level, it can hasten the loss of land ice, which does.

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US natural gas production could peak in 2020

There’s no question that shale gas production—enabled by hydraulic fracturing techniques—has boomed in the US with major effects on the energy industry. The price of natural gas fell and cleaner, more efficient gas-burning power plants have sprung up to usurp old coal plants. This has been seen as a long-term shift in the fossil fuel landscape, but it can’t last forever. The obvious question is just how much shale gas is down there to be had?

The most recent outlook from the US Energy Information Administration saw US production slowing from the exponential trajectory of the 2000s, but still increasing through 2040. A news article appearing in the journal Nature this week highlights a major research project run by a group at the University of Texas at Austin that foresees much lower production. Their analysis forecasts peak shale gas production in 2020, falling to half the EIA’s estimate by 2030.

The reason for the difference is mostly a matter of resolution, according to the Nature story. The EIA has relied on county-level production statistics, while the UT-Austin researchers have drilled down to one mile resolution. That makes it easier to account for “sweet spots”—the portions of a shale layer with the physical characteristics most conducive to producing natural gas. The reason for fracturing these rocks to free the gas is that they’re too impermeable for the gas to move through them, so this isn’t a case of the first few wells bleeding the store dry. But to the extent that sweet spots can be identified, they’re typically targeted for drilling first. That means that subsequent wells in the area may be significantly less productive. And that could translate into the end of the shale gas revolution arriving well ahead of schedule.

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