Understanding the Earth at Caltech

Created by: 
Teaser Image: 
Listing Title: 
Understanding the Earth at Caltech
Frontpage Title: 
Understanding the Earth at Caltech
Slideshow: 
Credit: Courtesy J. Andrade/Caltech

The ground beneath our feet may seem unexceptional, but it has a profound impact on the mechanics of landslides, earthquakes, and even Mars rovers. That is why civil and mechanical engineer Jose Andrade studies soils as well as other granular materials. Andrade creates computational models that capture the behavior of these materials—simulating a landslide or the interaction of a rover wheel and Martian soil, for instance. Though modeling a few grains of sand may be simple, predicting their action as a bulk material is very complex. "This dichotomy…leads to some really cool work," says Andrade. "The challenge is to capture the essence of the physics without the complexity of applying it to each grain in order to devise models that work at the landslide level."

Credit: Kelly Lance ©2013 MBARI

Geobiologist Victoria Orphan looks deep into the ocean to learn how microbes influence carbon, nitrogen, and sulfur cycling. For more than 20 years, her lab has been studying methane-breathing marine microorganisms that inhabit rocky mounds on the ocean floor. "Methane is a much more powerful greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so tracing its flow through the environment is really a priority for climate models and for understanding the carbon cycle," says Orphan. Her team recently discovered a significantly wider habitat for these microbes than was previously known. The microbes, she thinks, could be preventing large volumes of the potent greenhouse gas from entering the oceans and reaching the atmosphere.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Researchers know that aerosols—tiny particles in the atmosphere—scatter and absorb incoming sunlight, affecting the formation and properties of clouds. But it is not well understood how these effects might influence climate change. Enter chemical engineer John Seinfeld. His team conducted a global survey of the impact of changing aerosol levels on low-level marine clouds—clouds with the largest impact on the amount of incoming sunlight Earth reflects back into space—and found that varying aerosol levels altered both the quantity of atmospheric clouds and the clouds' internal properties. These results offer climatologists "unique guidance on how warm cloud processes should be incorporated in climate models with changing aerosol levels," Seinfeld says.

Credit: Yan Hu/Aroian Lab/UC San Diego

Tiny parasitic worms infect nearly half a billion people worldwide, causing gastrointestinal issues, cognitive impairment, and other health problems. Biologist Paul Sternberg is on the case. His lab recently analyzed the entire 313-million-nucleotide genome of the hookworm Ancylostoma ceylanicum to determine which genes turn on when the worm infects its host. A new family of proteins unique to parasitic worms and related to the early infection process was identified; the discovery could lead to new treatments targeting those genes. "A parasitic infection is a balance between the parasites trying to suppress the immune system and the host trying to attack the parasite," Sternberg observes, "and by analyzing the genome, we can uncover clues that might help us alter that balance in favor of the host."

Credit: K.Batygin/Caltech

Earth is special, not least because our solar system has a unique (as far as we know) orbital architecture: its rocky planets have relatively low masses compared to those around other sun-like stars. Planetary scientist Konstantin Batygin has an explanation. Using computer simulations to describe the solar system's early evolution, he and his colleagues showed that Jupiter's primordial wandering initiated a collisional cascade that ultimately destroyed the first generation population of more massive planets once residing in Earth's current orbital neighborhood. This process wiped the inner solar system's slate clean and set the stage for the formation of the planets that exist today. "Ultimately, what this means," says Batygin, "is that planets truly like Earth are intrinsically not very common."

Credit: Nicolás Wey-Gόmez/Caltech

Human understanding of the world has evolved over centuries, anchored to scientific and technological advancements and our ability to map uncharted territories. Historian Nicolás Wey-Gόmez traces this evolution and how the age of discovery helped shape culture and politics in the modern era. Using primary sources such as letters and diaries, he examines the assumptions behind Europe's encounter with the Americas, focusing on early portrayals of native peoples by Europeans. "The science and technology that early modern Europeans recovered from antiquity by way of the Arab world enabled them to imagine lands far beyond their own," says Wey-Gómez. "This knowledge provided them with an essential framework to begin to comprehend the peoples they encountered around the globe."

Body: 

At Caltech, researchers study the Earth from many angles—from investigating its origins and evolution to exploring its geology and inner workings to examining its biological systems. Taken together, their findings enable a more nuanced understanding of our planet in all its complexity, helping to ensure that it—and we—endure. This slideshow highlights just a few of the Earth-centered projects happening right now at Caltech.

Exclude from News Hub: 
Yes

An Earthquake Warning System in Our Pockets?

Researchers Test Smartphones for Advance-Notice System

While you are checking your email, scrolling through social-media feeds, or just going about your daily life with your trusty smartphone in your pocket, the sensors in that little computer could also be contributing to an earthquake early warning system. So says a new study led by researchers at Caltech and the United States Geological Survey (USGS). The study suggests that all of our phones and other personal electronic devices could function as a distributed network, detecting any ground movements caused by a large earthquake, and, ultimately, giving people crucial seconds to prepare for a temblor.

"Crowd-sourced alerting means that the community will benefit by data generated by the community," said Sarah Minson (PhD '10), a USGS geophysicist and lead author of the study, which appears in the April 10 issue of the new journal Science Advances. Minson completed the work while a postdoctoral scholar at Caltech in the laboratory of Thomas Heaton, professor of engineering seismology.

Earthquake early warning (EEW) systems detect the start of an earthquake and rapidly transmit warnings to people and automated systems before they experience shaking at their location. While much of the world's population is susceptible to damaging earthquakes, EEW systems are currently operating in only a few regions around the globe, including Japan and Mexico. "Most of the world does not receive earthquake warnings mainly due to the cost of building the necessary scientific monitoring networks," says USGS geophysicist and project lead Benjamin Brooks.

Despite being less accurate than scientific-grade equipment, the GPS receivers in smartphones are sufficient to detect the permanent ground movement, or displacement, caused by fault motion in earthquakes that are approximately magnitude 7 and larger. And, of course, they are already widely distributed. Once displacements are detected by participating users' phones, the collected information could be analyzed quickly in order to produce customized earthquake alerts that would then be transmitted back to users.

"Thirty years ago it took months to assemble a crude picture of the deformations from an earthquake. This new technology promises to provide a near-instantaneous picture with much greater resolution," says Heaton, a coauthor of the new study.

In the study, the researchers tested the feasibility of crowd-sourced EEW with a simulation of a hypothetical magnitude 7 earthquake, and with real data from the 2011 magnitude 9 Tohoku-oki, Japan earthquake. The results show that crowd-sourced EEW could be achieved with only a tiny percentage of people in a given area contributing information from their smartphones. For example, if phones from fewer than 5,000 people in a large metropolitan area responded, the earthquake could be detected and analyzed fast enough to issue a warning to areas farther away before the onset of strong shaking.

The researchers note that the GPS receivers in smartphones and similar devices would not be sufficient to detect earthquakes smaller than magnitude 7, which could still be potentially damaging. However, smartphones also have microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) accelerometers that are capable of recording any earthquake motions large enough to be felt; this means that smartphones may be useful in earthquakes as small as magnitude 5. In a separate project, Caltech's Community Seismic Network Project has been developing the framework to record and utilize data from an inexpensive array of such MEMS accelerometers.

Comprehensive EEW requires a dense network of scientific instruments. Scientific-grade EEW, such as the USGS's ShakeAlert system that is currently being implemented on the west coast of the United States, will be able to help minimize the impact of earthquakes over a wide range of magnitudes. However, in many parts of the world where there are insufficient resources to build and maintain scientific networks but consumer electronics are increasingly common, crowd-sourced EEW has significant potential.

"The U.S. earthquake early warning system is being built on our high-quality scientific earthquake networks, but crowd-sourced approaches can augment our system and have real potential to make warnings possible in places that don't have high-quality networks," says Douglas Given, USGS coordinator of the ShakeAlert Earthquake Early Warning System. The U.S. Agency for International Development has already agreed to fund a pilot project, in collaboration with the Chilean Centro Sismólogico Nacional, to test a pilot hybrid earthquake warning system comprising stand-alone smartphone sensors and scientific-grade sensors along the Chilean coast.

"Crowd-sourced data are less precise, but for larger earthquakes that cause large shifts in the ground surface, they contain enough information to detect that an earthquake has occurred, information necessary for early warning," says study coauthor Susan Owen of JPL.

Additional coauthors on the paper, "Crowdsourced earthquake early warning," are from the USGS, Carnegie Mellon University–Silicon Valley, and the University of Houston. The work was supported in part by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, the USGS Innovation Center for Earth Sciences, and the U.S. Department of Transportation Office of the Assistant Secretary for Research and Technology.

Writer: 
Kimm Fesenmaier
Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
No
News Type: 
Research News

Explaining Saturn’s Great White Spots

Every 20 to 30 years, Saturn's atmosphere roils with giant, planet-encircling thunderstorms that produce intense lightning and enormous cloud disturbances. The head of one of these storms—popularly called "great white spots," in analogy to the Great Red Spot of Jupiter—can be as large as Earth. Unlike Jupiter's spot, which is calm at the center and has no lightning, the Saturn spots are active in the center and have long tails that eventually wrap around the planet.

Six such storms have been observed on Saturn over the past 140 years, alternating between the equator and midlatitudes, with the most recent emerging in December 2010 and encircling the planet within six months. The storms usually occur when Saturn's northern hemisphere is most tilted toward the sun. Just what triggers them and why they occur so infrequently, however, has been unclear.

Now, a new study by two Caltech planetary scientists suggests a possible cause for these storms. The study was published April 13 in the advance online issue of the journal Nature Geoscience.

Using numerical modeling, Professor of Planetary Science Andrew Ingersoll and his graduate student Cheng Li simulated the formation of the storms and found that they may be caused by the weight of the water molecules in the planet's atmosphere. Because these water molecules are heavy compared to the hydrogen and helium that comprise most of the gas-giant planet's atmosphere, they make the upper atmosphere lighter when they rain out, and that suppresses convection.

Over time, this leads to a cooling of the upper atmosphere. But that cooling eventually overrides the suppressed convection, and warm moist air rapidly rises and triggers a thunderstorm. "The upper atmosphere is so cold and so massive that it takes 20 to 30 years for this cooling to trigger another storm," says Ingersoll.

Ingersoll and Li found that this mechanism matches observations of the great white spot of 2010 taken by NASA's Cassini spacecraft, which has been observing Saturn and its moons since 2004.

The researchers also propose that the absence of planet-encircling storms on Jupiter could be explained if Jupiter's atmosphere contains less water vapor than Saturn's atmosphere. That is because saturated gas (gas that contains the maximum amount of moisture that it can hold at a particular temperature) in a hydrogen-helium atmosphere goes through a density minimum as it cools. That is, it first becomes less dense as the water precipitates out, and then it becomes more dense as cooling proceeds further. "Going through that minimum is key to suppressing the convection, but there has to be enough water vapor to start with," says Li.

Ingersoll and Li note that observations by the Galileo spacecraft and the Hubble Space Telescope indicate that Saturn does indeed have enough water to go through this density minimum, whereas Jupiter does not. In November 2016, NASA's Juno spacecraft, now en route to Jupiter, will start measuring the water abundance on that planet. "That should help us understand not only the meteorology but also the planet's formation, since water is expected to be the third most abundant molecule after hydrogen and helium in a giant planet atmosphere," Ingersoll says.

The work in the paper, "Moist convection in hydrogen atmospheres and the frequency of Saturn's giant storms," was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Cassini Project of NASA.

Writer: 
Kathy Svitil
Contact: 
Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
No
News Type: 
Research News

New Research Suggests Solar System May Have Once Harbored Super-Earths

Caltech and UC Santa Cruz Researchers Say Earth Belongs to a Second Generation of Planets

Long before Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars formed, it seems that the inner solar system may have harbored a number of super-Earths—planets larger than Earth but smaller than Neptune. If so, those planets are long gone—broken up and fallen into the sun billions of years ago largely due to a great inward-and-then-outward journey that Jupiter made early in the solar system's history.

This possible scenario has been suggested by Konstantin Batygin, a Caltech planetary scientist, and Gregory Laughlin of UC Santa Cruz in a paper that appears the week of March 23 in the online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS). The results of their calculations and simulations suggest the possibility of a new picture of the early solar system that would help to answer a number of outstanding questions about the current makeup of the solar system and of Earth itself. For example, the new work addresses why the terrestrial planets in our solar system have such relatively low masses compared to the planets orbiting other sun-like stars.

"Our work suggests that Jupiter's inward-outward migration could have destroyed a first generation of planets and set the stage for the formation of the mass-depleted terrestrial planets that our solar system has today," says Batygin, an assistant professor of planetary science. "All of this fits beautifully with other recent developments in understanding how the solar system evolved, while filling in some gaps."

Thanks to recent surveys of exoplanets—planets in solar systems other than our own—we know that about half of sun-like stars in our galactic neighborhood have orbiting planets. Yet those systems look nothing like our own. In our solar system, very little lies within Mercury's orbit; there is only a little debris—probably near-Earth asteroids that moved further inward—but certainly no planets. That is in sharp contrast with what astronomers see in most planetary systems. These systems typically have one or more planets that are substantially more massive than Earth orbiting closer to their suns than Mercury does, but very few objects at distances beyond.

"Indeed, it appears that the solar system today is not the common representative of the galactic planetary census. Instead we are something of an outlier," says Batygin. "But there is no reason to think that the dominant mode of planet formation throughout the galaxy should not have occurred here. It is more likely that subsequent changes have altered its original makeup."

According to Batygin and Laughlin, Jupiter is critical to understanding how the solar system came to be the way it is today. Their model incorporates something known as the Grand Tack scenario, which was first posed in 2001 by a group at Queen Mary University of London and subsequently revisited in 2011 by a team at the Nice Observatory. That scenario says that during the first few million years of the solar system's lifetime, when planetary bodies were still embedded in a disk of gas and dust around a relatively young sun, Jupiter became so massive and gravitationally influential that it was able to clear a gap in the disk. And as the sun pulled the disk's gas in toward itself, Jupiter also began drifting inward, as though carried on a giant conveyor belt.

"Jupiter would have continued on that belt, eventually being dumped onto the sun if not for Saturn," explains Batygin. Saturn formed after Jupiter but got pulled toward the sun at a faster rate, allowing it to catch up. Once the two massive planets got close enough, they locked into a special kind of relationship called an orbital resonance, where their orbital periods were rational—that is, expressible as a ratio of whole numbers. In a 2:1 orbital resonance, for example, Saturn would complete two orbits around the sun in the same amount of time that it took Jupiter to make a single orbit. In such a relationship, the two bodies would begin to exert a gravitational influence on one another.

"That resonance allowed the two planets to open up a mutual gap in the disk, and they started playing this game where they traded angular momentum and energy with one another, almost to a beat," says Batygin. Eventually, that back and forth would have caused all of the gas between the two worlds to be pushed out, a situation that would have reversed the planets' migration direction and sent them back outward in the solar system. (Hence, the "tack" part of the Grand Tack scenario: the planets migrate inward and then change course dramatically, something like a boat tacking around a buoy.)

In an earlier model developed by Bradley Hansen at UCLA, the terrestrial planets conveniently end up in their current orbits with their current masses under a particular set of circumstances—one in which all of the inner solar system's planetary building blocks, or planetesimals, happen to populate a narrow ring stretching from 0.7 to 1 astronomical unit (1 astronomical unit is the average distance from the sun to Earth), 10 million years after the sun's formation. According to the Grand Tack scenario, the outer edge of that ring would have been delineated by Jupiter as it moved toward the sun on its conveyor belt and cleared a gap in the disk all the way to Earth's current orbit.

But what about the inner edge? Why should the planetesimals be limited to the ring on the inside? "That point had not been addressed," says Batygin.

He says the answer could lie in primordial super-Earths. The empty hole of the inner solar system corresponds almost exactly to the orbital neighborhood where super-Earths are typically found around other stars. It is therefore reasonable to speculate that this region was cleared out in the primordial solar system by a group of first-generation planets that did not survive.

Batygin and Laughlin's calculations and simulations show that as Jupiter moved inward, it pulled all the planetesimals it encountered along the way into orbital resonances and carried them toward the sun. But as those planetesimals got closer to the sun, their orbits also became elliptical. "You cannot reduce the size of your orbit without paying a price, and that turns out to be increased ellipticity," explains Batygin. Those new, more elongated orbits caused the planetesimals, mostly on the order of 100 kilometers in radius, to sweep through previously unpenetrated regions of the disk, setting off a cascade of collisions among the debris. In fact, Batygin's calculations show that during this period, every planetesimal would have collided with another object at least once every 200 years, violently breaking them apart and sending them decaying into the sun at an increased rate.

The researchers did one final simulation to see what would happen to a population of super-Earths in the inner solar system if they were around when this cascade of collisions started. They ran the simulation on a well-known extrasolar system known as Kepler-11, which features six super-Earths with a combined mass 40 times that of Earth, orbiting a sun-like star. The result? The model predicts that the super-Earths would be shepherded into the sun by a decaying avalanche of planetesimals over a period of 20,000 years.

"It's a very effective physical process," says Batygin. "You only need a few Earth masses worth of material to drive tens of Earth masses worth of planets into the sun."

Batygin notes that when Jupiter tacked around, some fraction of the planetesimals it was carrying with it would have calmed back down into circular orbits. Only about 10 percent of the material Jupiter swept up would need to be left behind to account for the mass that now makes up Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars.

From that point, it would take millions of years for those planetesimals to clump together and eventually form the terrestrial planets—a scenario that fits nicely with measurements that suggest that Earth formed 100–200 million years after the birth of the sun. Since the primordial disk of hydrogen and helium gas would have been long gone by that time, this could also explain why Earth lacks a hydrogen atmosphere. "We formed from this volatile-depleted debris," says Batygin.

And that sets us apart in another way from the majority of exoplanets. Batygin expects that most exoplanets—which are mostly super-Earths—have substantial hydrogen atmospheres, because they formed at a point in the evolution of their planetary disk when the gas would have still been abundant. "Ultimately, what this means is that planets truly like Earth are intrinsically not very common," he says.

The paper also suggests that the formation of gas giant planets such as Jupiter and Saturn—a process that planetary scientists believe is relatively rare—plays a major role in determining whether a planetary system winds up looking something like our own or like the more typical systems with close-in super-Earths. As planet hunters identify additional systems that harbor gas giants, Batygin and Laughlin will have more data against which they can check their hypothesis—to see just how often other migrating giant planets set off collisional cascades in their planetary systems, sending primordial super-Earths into their host stars.

 The researchers describe their work in a paper titled "Jupiter's Decisive Role in the Inner Solar System's Early Evolution."

Writer: 
Kimm Fesenmaier
Frontpage Title: 
Our Solar System May Have Once Harbored Super-Earths
Listing Title: 
Our Solar System May Have Once Harbored Super-Earths
Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
No
Short Title: 
Super-Earths In Our Solar System?
News Type: 
Research News

Orphan Elected Fellow of American Academy of Microbiology

Professor of Geobiology Victoria Orphan has been elected to the American Academy of Microbiology. Fellows are elected through a highly selective peer-review process to recognize scientific achievement and "original contributions that have advanced microbiology."

"It's a great honor to receive this award, and there's also a nostalgic component," Orphan says. "The first microbiology conference I attended was the American Academy of Microbiology meeting in New Orleans 20 years ago. This year, the location has cycled back to New Orleans, and that's where I'll be receiving this award. It has been a great journey."

For the past 20 years, Orphan has studied anaerobic marine microorganisms that live within the seafloor and breathe methane. Through their unusual metabolism, these organisms restrict the amount of methane that seeps into the ocean and atmosphere. Methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide, so understanding how it cycles through the oceans and atmosphere is an important component of modeling Earth's climate.

Recently, Orphan and her team discovered evidence that these microbes inhabit not only sediments on the ocean floor but also huge calcium carbonate mounds that can rise hundreds of feet above the seafloor. The mounds represent a previously unrecognized biological sink for methane that could be preventing large amounts of the potent greenhouse gas from reaching the atmosphere.

Orphan is one of 79 other microbiologists elected as fellows to the academy in 2015. She joins current fellows Jared Leadbetter, professor of environmental microbiology, and Dianne Newman, professor of biology and geobiology, and investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute.

Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
No
News Type: 
In Our Community
Friday, April 10, 2015
Noyes 147 (J. Holmes Sturdivant Lecture Hall) – Arthur Amos Noyes Laboratory of Chemical Physics

Transforming Chemistry Education

Friction Means Antarctic Glaciers More Sensitive to Climate Change Than We Thought

One of the biggest unknowns in understanding the effects of climate change today is the melting rate of glacial ice in Antarctica. Scientists agree rising atmospheric and ocean temperatures could destabilize these ice sheets, but there is uncertainty about how fast they will lose ice.

The West Antarctic Ice Sheet is of particular concern to scientists because it contains enough ice to raise global sea level by up to 16 feet, and its physical configuration makes it susceptible to melting by warm ocean water. Recent studies have suggested that the collapse of certain parts of the ice sheet is inevitable. But will that process take several decades or centuries?

Research by Caltech scientists now suggests that estimates of future rates of melt for the West Antarctic Ice Sheet—and, by extension, of future sea-level rise—have been too conservative. In a new study, published online on March 9 in the Journal of Glaciology, a team led by Victor Tsai, an assistant professor of geophysics, found that properly accounting for Coulomb friction—a type of friction generated by solid surfaces sliding against one another—in computer models significantly increases estimates of how sensitive the ice sheet is to temperature perturbations driven by climate change.

Unlike other ice sheets that are moored to land above the ocean, most of West Antarctica's ice sheet is grounded on a sloping rock bed that lies below sea level. In the past decade or so, scientists have focused on the coastal part of the ice sheet where the land ice meets the ocean, called the "grounding line," as vital for accurately determining the melting rate of ice in the southern continent.

"Our results show that the stability of the whole ice sheet and our ability to predict its future melting is extremely sensitive to what happens in a very small region right at the grounding line. It is crucial to accurately represent the physics here in numerical models," says study coauthor Andrew Thompson, an assistant professor of environmental science and engineering at Caltech.

Part of the seafloor on which the West Antarctic Ice Sheet rests slopes upward toward the ocean in what scientists call a "reverse slope gradient." The end of the ice sheet also floats on the ocean surface so that ocean currents can deliver warm water to its base and melt the ice from below. Scientists think this "basal melting" could cause the grounding line to retreat inland, where the ice sheet is thicker. Because ice thickness is a key factor in controlling ice discharge near the coast, scientists worry that the retreat of the grounding line could accelerate the rate of interior ice flow into the oceans. Grounding line recession also contributes to the thinning and melting away of the region's ice shelves—thick, floating extensions of the ice sheet that help reduce the flow of ice into the sea.

According to Tsai, many earlier models of ice sheet dynamics tried to simplify calculations by assuming that ice loss is controlled solely by viscous stresses, that is, forces that apply to "sticky fluids" such as honey—or in this case, flowing ice. The conventional models thus accounted for the flow of ice around obstacles but ignored friction. "Accounting for frictional stresses at the ice sheet bottom in addition to the viscous stresses changes the physical picture dramatically," Tsai says.

In their new study, Tsai's team used computer simulations to show that even though Coulomb friction affects only a relatively small zone on an ice sheet, it can have a big impact on ice stream flow and overall ice sheet stability.

In most previous models, the ice sheet sits firmly on the bed and generates a downward stress that helps keep it attached it to the seafloor. Furthermore, the models assumed that this stress remains constant up to the grounding line, where the ice sheet floats, at which point the stress disappears.

Tsai and his team argue that their model provides a more realistic representation—in which the stress on the bottom of the ice sheet gradually weakens as one approaches the coasts and grounding line, because the weight of the ice sheet is increasingly counteracted by water pressure at the glacier base. "Because a strong basal shear stress cannot occur in the Coulomb model, it completely changes how the forces balance at the grounding line," Thompson says.

Tsai says the idea of investigating the effects of Coulomb friction on ice sheet dynamics came to him after rereading a classic study on the topic by American metallurgist and glaciologist Johannes Weertman from Northwestern University. "I wondered how might the behavior of the ice sheet differ if one factored in this water-pressure effect from the ocean, which Weertman didn't know would be important when he published his paper in 1974," Tsai says.

Tsai thought about how this could be achieved and realized the answer might lie in another field in which he is actively involved: earthquake research. "In seismology, Coulomb friction is very important because earthquakes are thought to be the result of the edge of one tectonic plate sliding against the edge of another plate frictionally," Tsai said. "This ice sheet research came about partly because I'm working on both glaciology and earthquakes."

If the team's Coulomb model is correct, it could have important implications for predictions of ice loss in Antarctica as a result of climate change. Indeed, for any given increase in temperature, the model predicts a bigger change in the rate of ice loss than is forecasted in previous models. "We predict that the ice sheets are more sensitive to perturbations such as temperature," Tsai says.

Hilmar Gudmundsson, a glaciologist with the British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge, UK, called the team's results "highly significant." "Their work gives further weight to the idea that a marine ice sheet, such as the West Antarctic Ice Sheet, is indeed, or at least has the potential to become, unstable," says Gudmundsson, who was not involved in the study.

Glaciologist Richard Alley, of Pennsylvania State University, noted that historical studies have shown that ice sheets can remain stable for centuries or millennia and then switch to a different configuration suddenly.

"If another sudden switch happens in West Antarctica, sea level could rise a lot, so understanding what is going on at the grounding lines is essential," says Alley, who also did not participate in the research.

"Tsai and coauthors have taken another important step in solving this difficult problem," he says.

Along with Tsai and Thompson, Andrew Stewart, an assistant professor of atmospheric and oceanic sciences at UCLA, was also a coauthor on the paper, "Marine ice sheet profiles and stability under Coulomb basal conditions." Funding support for the study was provided by Caltech's President's and Director's Fund program and the Stanback Discovery Fund for Global Environmental Science.

Frontpage Title: 
Ice Sheets Melting Faster than Expected?
Listing Title: 
Ice Sheets Melting Faster than Expected?
Writer: 
Exclude from News Hub: 
No
News Type: 
Research News
Tuesday, April 7, 2015
Dabney Hall, Lounge – Dabney Hall

Caltech Roundtable: Writing Popular Books about Science

Tuesday, March 31, 2015 to Thursday, April 16, 2015
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

Spring TA Training

Monday, March 31, 2014 to Wednesday, April 16, 2014
Center for Student Services 360 (Workshop Space) – Center for Student Services

Spring TA Training

Pages

Subscribe to RSS - GPS