Author Archives: derasa

Another big surprise

The discovery from the Neanderthal genome that people outside Africa have such a muscular bloke in their distant ancestry (see Yes, it seems that they did…in May 2010 issue of EPN) ought to be quite enough of a shock for one year, but hard on its heels comes another. Animal bones from Ethiopia in sediments dated at more than 3.4 Ma show clear signs of having flesh cut from them with a sharp blade (McPherron, S.P. et al. 2010. Evidence for stone-tool assisted consumption of animal tissues before 3.39 million years ago at Dikika, Ethiopia. Nature, v. 466, p. 857-860). The oldest known stone tools date back only 2.4 Ma (none were found at Dikika), and those associated with a known hominin (H. habilis) to half a million years later than that. No species of the genus Homo is known to have been living 3.4 Ma ago, so a likely candidate for making and wielding stone tools then would be Australopithecus afarensis: Lucy’s genus. In fact the infant A. afarensis named Selam (see ‘Peace’ (Selam) disturbed in October 2006 issue of EPN) was found a mere 300 m away from the cut-marked bones.

There are several problems that arise from these butchered bones, as regards their implications. Do hominin specialists reserve the genus Homo exclusively for tool makers? If so, do Lucy and Selam become H. afarensis? But without actual tools associated with the bones, it is impossible to decide whether they were specifically made to deflesh prey or carrion, or were just sharp, naturally occurring bits of stone that some creature with insubstantial teeth happened to use to snaffle a quick snack from competing carnivores. Even more intriguing, in the light of the immense rarity of hominin remains, was there some creature more advanced than A. afarensis roaming the stifling plains of Ethiopia’s Awash valley 1.4 Ma before the first known tool maker? The various Awash projects will run and run after this new and startling discovery.

Survival by the seaside

Increasingly, hominins have survived swings of climate by their wits and by chance. Neither underpin the instinct to migrate when times are hard, but where one ends up depended, until the Holocene, more on chance than design. Early migrations must have been more by diffusion than purposeful, especially in the vastness of the African continent. Yet groups of hominins found their way into Eurasia several times and thrived there. Far more of them would have met the coast far from a continental exit route, such as the Levant or the Straits of Bab el Mandab. However, in stressful glacial episodes reaching the coast was a key to survival as its food resources are almost limitless (see Human migration and sea food May 2000 issue of EPN). Our own species found refuge by the sea not long after we originated (Marean, C.W. 2010. When the sea saved humanity. Scientific American, v. 303 (August 2010), p. 40-47). Around 195 ka climate began to cool and dry to reach a glacial maximum at roughly 123 ka. Curtis Marean (Arizona State University, USA) was one of the first scientists to look for signs of coastal refuges in Africa during the early 1990s, particularly at its southern tip. With co-workers he found several caves on the coast of South Africa that yielded the evidence on which he has based a review of littoral survival opportunities and the skills that we developed. This particular coastal stretch has a huge diversity of plant life, most unique to it, and many of which store carbohydrate in tubers, bulbs and corms. They are adapted to dry conditions and need only the simplest technology – digging sticks and fires for cooking – to exploit starchy, easily digested energy resources, along with the more obvious animal protein sources present on all shorelines. Marean’s review puts in plain language all the discoveries made by his group over the last 20 years, including evidence of the use of fire treatment to improve flaked stone tools and the development of art based on iron-oxide pigments, plus his own take on their anthropological significance.

Earlier colonisers of northern Europe

The Pleistocene of East Anglia in England is a rich source of the high-latitude flora and fauna from early interglacials of the 1 Ma long series of 100 ka climate cycles. Eyed by archaeologists for decades as a potential source of human remains, a coastal site at Pakefield in Suffolk finally yielded stone tools in 2005 (see Earliest tourism in northern Europe in EPN January 2006). The enclosing sediments, to widespread excitement, turned out to be around 700 ka old, establishing the earliest known human colonisation at that latitude (52ºN). At that time East Anglia was connected to Europe during both glacial and interglacial periods, and was crossed by a now-vanished river system draining the Midlands and Wales into the proto-North Sea. Stone artifacts have now emerged from similar interglacial terrestrial sediments on the shore below the village of Happisburgh (pronounced ‘Haze-burra’) further north still, in Norfolk (Parfitt, S.A and 115 others 2010. Early Pleistocene human occupation at the edge of the boreal zone in northwest Europe. Nature, v. 466, p. 229-233). Magnetostratigraphy pushes back the human influence here to more than 800 ka, maybe as far back as 950 ka. As yet no human remains have been turned up, and the site is below high-tide level and liable to be destroyed by winter storms so work proceeds as fast as possible. Yet cliff erosion will inevitably reveal new material each spring.

Fauna and flora from Happisburgh indicate a slow flowing river flanked by coniferous forest with grassed clearings. Beetle fossils suggest summer temperatures slightly warmer than those in modern southern Britain, but with winters some 3ºC colder than now. The climate was analogous to that in southern Norway today, at the transition from temperate to boreal vegetation zones; certainly tough in winter for people without shelter. Yet the permanent connection with continental Europe would have permitted easy seasonal migration across great plains that extended to warmer southern climes. The tool-using people were not the earliest Europeans, for several archaeological sites in Spain, southern France and Italy extend back to 1.3 Ma. Who or rather what hominin species they were needs bones, preferably those of the head. The discovery that there were at least 4 hominin species cohabiting Eurasia during the last glacial epoch encourages caution in any speculation.

See also: Roberts, A.P. & Grűn, R. 2010. Early human northerners. Nature, v. 466, p. 189-190.

Plate theory moves on

more empirical evidence from sea-floor magnetism, seismicity, bathymetry and a growing number of other features that relate to Earth’s dynamism. Yet the original concepts of rigid plates and their dislocation from one another and the underlying mantle have been undermined to a degree by the wealth of data now available. Increasing resolution of seismic tomography is revealing what is happening in the depths of the mantle on which growing confidence can be placed. Matching these increasingly revealing sources of data has been the computing power to try to blend them all with rheological theory and thereby model the way the world works. The latest of these modelling ventures does seem to move plate theory onto a significantly higher plane (Stadler, G. et al. 2010. The dynamics of plate tectonics and mantle flow: from local to global scales. Science, v. 329, p. 1033-1038). The keys to this step are: increasingly sophisticated software that encompasses the contributory factors, akin to models used by mechanical and hydraulic engineers; faster computing that allows a decrease in the size of the 3-D cells used in assessing all the interactions as realistically as possible, and a great deal of graphic creativity so that we can visualise the results. At its centre is varying rock strength, the principal ‘engineering’ input derived from seismic tomography, blended with the gravitational and thermal forces that drive Earth’s ‘engine’

Stadler et al.’s development divides up the planet into a 3-D mesh whose resolution varies according to the likely complexity of motions within and upon the Earth. For instance there is not much call for detail for what lies below abyssal plains of the ocean floor, so available computing power can be focused on the more intricate parts of the tectonic set-up, especially subduction zones that are both the most spectacular features of the Earth’s behaviour and the source of the main force that drives its surface parts – slab pull. Already the approach is producing more questions than answers. For instance, building in the data that show something of convection in the deep mantle makes the model’s output for the more shallow-seated and better known processes deviate more than expected from what is observed – less comprehensive and more coarse approaches previously seemed to be match deep and shallow processes quite well. This is a difficult topic to express merely in words, but fortunately the paper has been made freely available at

See also: Becker, T. 2010. Fine-scale modelling of global plate tectonics. Science, v. 329, p. 1020-1021.

Low-angle extensional detachments at ocean ridges

The discovery in the 1970s that some low-angled faults have an extensional or normal sense of displacement stemmed from extensional systems in the continental crust, exemplified by the Basin and Range Province of western North America. Yet the largest extensional systems on Earth are those associated with mid-ocean ridges, and in the 1980s some of those were shown to involve low-angled detachments too. Michael Cheadle and Craig Grimes (University of Wyoming and Mississippi State University, USA) review the latest word on oceanic extensional complexes revealed at the AGO Chapman Conference in May 2010 (Cheadle, M. & Grimes, C. 2010. To fault or not to fault. Nature Geoscience, v. 3, p.454-456). As in continental extension, this kind of deformation at divergent margins may produce core complexes uplifted as a result of tectonic unroofing by low-angled detachments, thereby revealing oceanic mantle lithosphere on the ocean floor. Such peculiarities seem to be absent from fast spreading ridges such as the East Pacific Rise and occur where spreading is slow. They are best developed where spreading is starved of magma injection to produce the classic sheeted-dyke complexes of the middle oceanic crust, and with unusually thick oceanic lithosphere. Yet the ocean floor must spread at these localities, and that is achieved by extensional tectonics that accommodates up to 125 km of spreading with next to no magmatism: 4 Ma-worth of spreading.

For extensional faults to develop into low-angled detachments rocks must be weak, otherwise simple steep, domino-style faults would form. Penetration of seawater down faults weakens oceanic lithosphere through hydration reactions that produce clays and serpentines, which encourage the formation of ductile shear zones. Interestingly, some of the largest hydrothermal systems on the mid-Atlantic Ridge coincide with core complexes, and exude hydrogen – a product of serpentinisation – as well as methane and metal-rich brines

New clues to origin of porphyry-type ore deposits

The prominence of porphyry Cu-Au-Mo deposits above active subduction zones at continental margins, as in the Andes, has long encouraged ore geologists to suggest that they form as part of continental arc magmatism. Typically they occupy cupolas above large, intermediate to felsic, subvolcanic magma chambers that source the ore-forming fluid and most of the metals. Most show evidence of the influence of explosive fluid boiling that shatters the host porphyry mass during late stage hydrothermal activity thereby producing myriad cracks that become mineralised as a stockwork. One of the largest, among the longest worked and most investigated porphyry deposits is that at Bingham Canyon in Utah, USA. New isotope geochemistry bucks the accepted wisdom about porphyry-type mineralisation, in particular the source of the contained metals (Pettke, T. et al. 2010. The magma and metal source of giant porphyry-type ore deposits, based on lead isotope microanalysis of individual fluid inclusions. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 296, p. 267–277).

The Bingham Canyon ores and host intrusion are Cenozoic in age (~38 Ma). However, isotopes of lead in fluid inclusions within the ore zone reveal a much more ancient metal endowment of the mantle underlying continental crust, around 1800 Ma ago, probably by metasomatism during the accretion of Palaeoproterozoic island arcs. Magmatism in the late Eocene, presaging the evolution of the Basin and Range extensional province drew in Cu and Au from the mantle and Mo from assimilated continental crust; i.e. Bingham Canyon and other huge porphyry deposits of the Western USA inherited metal enrichment from long beforehand, unlike those of active continental arcs. The intrinsic importance of the discovery is that given intermediate to felsic magmatism of any age, if it is sourced in relics of earlier arc-related igneous events then there is a chance that more recent activity may spawn rich porphyry deposits; more or less anywhere, given a metal endowed infrastructure. That opens up exploration possibilities to hitherto unexplored ground above ancient subduction zones.

The earliest multicelled life

Being multicellular does not necessarily qualify a fossilised organism as being a member of the eukaryote domain: such a classification is assured when there is strong evidence for many cells constituting a functional whole with specialised parts. That eukaryotes also have cells with nuclei and a variety of organelles is a prerequisite for living members, though such evidence is extremely rare and disputed for fossils, and the earliest convincing examples are from 1700 Ma sedimentary rocks. Using a molecular clock approach to the differences in genetic make-up between modern eukaryotes might seem one means of estimating when the last common ancestor of all of them lived, but the Catch-22 is having incontrovertible examples from the distant past as means of calibrating that approach. A fourth possible ‘fingerprint’ is the presence of biomarker chemicals in sedimentary rocks that are exclusive to living Eucarya, steranes derived from sterols being an example.

Since the 1970s the oldest candidate for eukaryote status has been a coiled form a few centimetres across made from a strap-like carbon film, known as Grypania that some regard as a primitive alga. Yet it could equally be a colonial bacterium. Grypania are know as far back as those found in the 1900 Ma ironstones of Michigan, USA. Thin black shales from a mixed marine and terrestrial sequence of 2100 Ma siltstones and sandstone in Gabon, West Africa now provide something far more spectacular (El Albani, A. and 21 others 2010. Large colonial organisms with coordinated growth in oxygenated environments 2.1 Gyr ago. Nature, v. 466, p. 100-104). They are complex and look a little like an irregular discus 1-2 cm across. Being replaced by fine grained iron sulfide they preserve odd internal structures discernible using X-ray tomography – folds of their central node – signs of flexibility in the original material – and scalloped flanges with radial slits. To the authors this suggests coordinated growth rather than the amorphous characteristics of bacterial biofilms such as stromatolites. They are completely unlike any living colonial bacteria. Their host rocks have yielded steranes characteristic of eukaryote biochemistry, but contamination from groundwater cannot yet be ruled out.

Only the one and a half billion year younger Ediacara fauna comes close in terms of complexity of form to the Gabon fossils. Yet whether they are the earliest-known eukaryotes or bacterial colonies whose growth was coordinated between the cells of which they were composed by some unknown exchange of information cannot be pinned down. However, their age is appropriate for the rise of the oxygen-demanding Eucarya, a few hundred million years after the start of planetary oxygenation. Perhaps more important, the surprising find will give palaeobiologists the impetus and confidence that large body fossils can indeed be found in the Palaeoproterozoic Era.
See also: Donoghue, P.C.J & Antcliffe, J.B. 2010. Origins of multicellularity. Nature, v. 466, p. 41-42.

Ordovician lagerstätte in Morocco
It was during the Ordovician Period that multicelled life really took off (see The Great Ordovician Diversification in the September 2008 issue of EPN), but the fossil record seems to suggest that the wonderfully diverse soft-bodies fauna of the Cambrian, exemplified by that from the Burgess Shale, didn’t survive to take part. It turns out that this may be an artefact of imperfect preservation, for a Lower Ordovician equivalent of the Burgess Shale has been unearthed in Morocco (Van Roy, P. et al. 2010. Ordovician faunas of Burgess Shale type. Nature, v. 465, p 215-218). It is just as rich and even shows more organic detail, highlighted in reds, oranges and yellows because iron sulfide that mineralised soft parts has since been gently oxidised. A fascinating link with the Burgess Shale is that the fossil taxa from the Moroccan lagerstätte are related to those in that most famous Middle Cambrian rock unit.

On the subject of exceptionally preserved fossil material, one of the Burgess Shale oddities, new specimens of Nectocaris pteryx allow a detailed reconstruction. What a stunning beast! This 5 cm stem-group cephalopod had two tentacles, enormous stalked eyes and a funnel shaped device that may have been for squid-like jet propulsion. Reconstruction of its back-end suggests a cuttlefish-like means of propulsion by a flap of tissue around the main body, but with no sign of any stiffening ‘bone’.

Possible abiotic mechanisms for DNA splitting and cell membranes
The central feature of the DNA helix is its ability to ‘unzip’ and recombine as part of the replication that is essential for all known living things. In doing this, DNA copies itself. It is one thing to deduce this from DNA’s structure and the meiotic aspect of reproduction, but quite another to figure out how it might have arisen. An experiment that mimics conditions in porous sea-floor lava – a temperature gradient and small-scale convection inside a capillary tube – shows that this lengthways splitting does occur on the hot side of the gradient. On the cool arm of the convection the halved ribbons of DNA reassemble (Mast, C.B. & Braun, D. 2010. Thermal trap for DNA replication. Physical Review Letters, v. 104, p. 188102-188105). This is a long way from life’s origin and even that of DNA as an isolated entity without a cell, but perhaps one step towards a better understanding of both. It seems pretty certain from a range of evidence – e.g. heavy metal centred proteins and heat-shock proteins – that life sprang from physical and chemical processes around hot vents on the ocean floor. What’s next on the experimental agenda: membranes to bag-up genetic material such as DNA as a precursor to the cell? It’s been done (Budin, I. et al. 2009. Formation of protocell-like vesicles in a thermal diffusion column) using fatty acids that are relatively easy to generate abiotically. Some can transform into flexible membranes that curve in on themselves – amphiphiles – and vesicles of these formed in Budin et al.’s capillary tubes.
See also: McAlpine, K. 2010. Life cooked up in undersea cauldrons. New Scientist, v. 206 (29 May 2010 issue), p. 14.

‘Fracking’ shale and US ‘peak gas’

Around 1970 the production of natural gas in the US reached its peak and has been slowly declining since then. The degree to which the US economy has grown to depend on natural gas and growing fears of becoming dependent on insecure supplies on the international LPG market has seen a stealthy growth in unconventional technologies to maintain indigenous supplies. The greatest growth has been in winning the useful fuel from ‘tight’ organic-rich shales that are usually regarded as source rocks for conventional petroleum rather than resources in their own right (Kerr, R.A.. 2010. Natural gas from shale bursts onto the scene. Science, 328, p. 1624-1626). The technology relies on drilling methods developed in the oil industry that allow several holes from a single platform to bend to pass at low angles through thin, gently dipping strata. That allows far larger volumes to be tapped than through a single, vertical well. Oil shales are not yet targeted for liquid petroleum because of the cost, but as Richard Kerr, a news writer for Science, reveals they are supplying an increasing proportion of US gas demand: from 1% to 20% since 2000. Being less of a source of carbon dioxide than coal or oil that might seem to be a ‘good thing’ all round, but there are worrying and little known problems with the technology.

To get the gas out demands that the permeability of shale is artificially increased by jacking open joints and fractures using very high-pressure fluids that carry sand to wedge them open when production begins open: this is ‘fracking’ in driller-speak. Not only gas starts to move, but also water locked into the shale for millions of years and often highly toxic. Drillers hope that all the fluids will follow the holes, but that is by no means guaranteed and some may make their way into aquifers and up to the surface. The fluids used in fracking are deliberately full of chemicals that help open up cracks and even biocides that keep them from being clogged by bacterial films: around 15 million litres used per well. Although aimed to be recycled these noxious fluids can escape, sometimes in massive blowouts. Uncontrolled gas and formation water escapes can cause explosions and kill of forested areas by disrupting tree-root biota.

Post-perovskite unveiled

Kei Hirose, the discoverer in 2002 of a ultra high-pressure transformation of mantle mineralogy, has produced a highly readable review of the implications of his work for how the mantle functions (Hirose, K. 2010. The Earth’s missing ingredient. Scientific American, v. 302 (June 2010 issue), p. 58-65).

Seismology has long charted the occurrence of step-changes in mantle properties at a several more or less constant depths. Mantle above 410 km provide most of the samples available to geoscientists as inclusions in basalt lavas and is olivine-rich peridotite. From 410-660 km the elements forming olivine take on a different configuration more akin to the mineral spinel; also backed by some direct as well as theoretical/experimental evidence. At 660 km deep seismic properties change dramatically in a major transition zone. Experimental work in the 1970s with mantle chemical compositions at high pressures and temperatures showed that at greater depths the structure of magnesium silicates like olivine, pyroxene and spinel collapses to a denser form with very efficient packing of aoms that is the same as that of a broad group of minerals known as perovskites. That seemed to be the end of the matter. However, continued geophysical investigations and geochemical studies of basalts derived by partial melting of mantle rock teased out complexities in the once assumed simplicity of the mantle. In 1983 analysis of seismic records revealed a further step in physical properties of the deepest mantle (once designated the D layer) that forced a revision to recognise a transition at 2600 km deep, just 300 km above the core-mantle boundary. This now separates the 2000 km thick D’ layer from the lowest D” layer in the mantle. Subsequently, chemical heterogeneities in the deep mantle became a major puzzle.

Hirose and his team pushed experimental conditions to match the huge pressures below 2600 km and discovered a yet more efficient, hitherto unknown molecular configuration that arranges magnesium, silicon and oxygen into separate layers: dubbed ‘post-perovskite’ for want of a already known mineral structure. As well as a small (1.5%) increase in density, the mineralogical change unexpectedly releases rather than consumes heat energy. Such an exothermic process clearly had great implications for how the mantle works. If rock from higher levels finds its way down to and below the D’-D” transition, as might happen if subducted oceanic lithosphere slabs continue ever downwards, it gets an energy ‘kick’. Theoretical work revealed that the early Earth would have been too hot for post-perovskite to form. But once it had cooled below a threshold the phase change ‘snapped’ into existence: that must have significantly changed mantle dynamics. Convective motion in D” that brings material to the D’:D” boundary the post-perovskite to perovskite phase change produces a sharp decrease in density and an upward force. So, once D” formed plume formation and overall mantle convection would have increased. That impetus could not have been present before so that early Earth mantle dynamics were more sluggish. That would maintain a hotter core-mantle boundary, thereby slowing cooling of the liquid core and formation of the solid inner core. Moreover, the upper mantle would have been cooler than now, creating the paradox of less surface magmatism on the early Earth. Theoretically, development of D” should have been marked by a 20% increase in heat flow and a paroxysm of tectonics and crust formation. Was that linked with the formation of stable continental crust around 4 Ga, the spurt in continental growth in the late Archaean or some later event (Hirose suggests 2.3 Ga, but no major tectonic shift has that age)?

As well as tectonic implications, the affect of the D” layer on the pace of crystallisation of the solid inner core may have controlled increasing strength and stability of the geomagnetic field. Because only Earth’s strong magnetic field protects the surface from life-threatening cosmic rays and the solar wind, in a roundabout way post-perovskite possibly played a role in allowing the origin, evolution and survival of life on our home world. That possibility is pretty much the ultimate link between solid Earth and the biosphere: take note Gaians!
See also: Buffet, B.A. 2010. The enigmatic inner core. Science, v. 328, p. 982-983.

Why a glacial period ends

The publicity and debate that sprang up in the 9 months after release of e-mails stolen (17 November 2009) from the British University of East Anglia’s Climatic Research Unit, and several debacles regarding pronouncements by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have in fact cleared the air on several purely scientific matters. , Contrary to what had become the broad public conception, thanks to massive and continuous propaganda about global warming that barely mentions anything else, greenhouse gas emissions are widely revealed to be not the ‘only game in town’ when it comes to past changes in climate. That is very much the lesson learned by decades of study of the greatest climate change that fully modern humans have experienced: the last glacial termination when the deepest frigidity about 20 ka ago gave way to very rapid warming. A review of that enormous world event carries important lessons about what really controls climate on our world and how complex that is (Denton, G.H. et al. 2010. The last glacial termination. Science, v. 328, p. 1652-1656).

Since the 1970s proxy data from deep-sea sediments that reveal the variation in the volume of glacial ice on land have showed how climate changes over the last 2.5 Ma are broadly correlated with the periods of astronomical effects on the amount of solar energy received by Earth or insolation, particularly that at high northern latitudes. This might suggest that glacial terminations occur when insolation reaches maxima. In fact over the last 800 ka terminations have also occurred at times of low insolation. The Milankovich signal is ubiquitous but it is not the primary driving factor for the end of glacial episodes. Nor do they tally exactly with increased CO2 in the atmosphere, as recorded in air bubble trapped in polar ice. In fact there is a lag between the record for greenhouse gases and those for warming and cooling. The clearest correlation is between terminations and the maximum volume of land ice in each glacial epoch, towards which Denton et al. direct most attention. Since Antarctic ice has barely changed volume since the Pliocene, pulsation in land-ice volume must stem mostly from Northern Hemisphere glaciation and deglaciation. That repeatedly occurred around the North Atlantic where the main sites for ocean-water downwelling occur. At their thickest the North American and European ice sheets also had their greatest isostatic effects, bowing down the crust, and increasing ice flow towards the ocean. Time after time in each glacial build-up such a configuration became unstable so that marginal ice collapsed to produce the iceberg ‘armadas’ known as Heinrich events. Freshening of the North Atlantic by iceberg melting shut down the downwelling, thereby thermally isolating high northern latitudes to give Dansgaard-Oeschger events comprising paired coolings, or stadials, followed by suddenly warming interstadials once deep circulation restarted.

What is also emerging is that, to maintain heat balance, as each stadial developed in the North Atlantic more heat was shifted to the Southern Hemisphere. Increased downwelling of cold saline water of the Southern Ocean drove this warming to higher southern latitudes. The net observed effect is a southern reversal of sea-surface and polar air temperatures compared with those of the Northern Hemisphere, especially clear in the late stages of the last termination, including the Younger Dryas. Each warming of the south encouraged the southern oceans to emit stored CO2 to the atmosphere, until finally sufficient to maintain global warm conditions when the arose during terminations.

Flatulence and the Younger Dryas
There is a widespread belief that the enlargement of domesticated ruminant herds, mainly cattle, goats and sheep, may have had some effect on recent climate: their enteric fermentation of grass cellulose generates methane, a powerful greenhouse gas. Livestock produce an estimated 80 million metric tons of methane annually, accounting for about 28% of anthropogenic methane emissions. Livestock aren’t the only methane emitting ruminants: giraffe; bison; yaks; water buffalo; deer; camels (including llamas and alpacas); and antelope. Elephants are not so efficient, but they do break wind a great deal. An adult elephant emits about half a ton of methane annually; enough to run a car 20 miles per day; on the school run for instance.

Livestock have become the dominant herbivores on the planet, but far more wild ruminants roamed the Earth during the last glacial epoch because of the much greater expanses of grasslands during cooler, more arid conditions. This was especially the case in North America, a much diminished impression being given by the vast herds of bison that were almost exterminated in the 19th century and those of caribou that still migrate across Alaska and northern Canada. The estimated ruminant population of late-Pleistocene prairies was so large that it too has been implicated in climate change during the last glacial termination (Smith, F.A. et al. 2010. Methane emissions from extinct megafauna. Nature Geoscience, v. 3, p. 374-375), with estimated annual emissions around 10 million tons. With atmospheric methane concentrations having reached around 650 parts per billion by volume (ppbv) by 15 ka – a third of those today – the farting animals of the prairies may have made a significant contribution to post-glacial global warming. Sometime around 13 ka immigrant humans from Asia entered the scene, armed with efficient hunting weapons. By 11.5 ka, the vast herds had more or less vanished through extinction, and the 10 megaton methane emission went with them. Felisa Smith and her colleagues from the University of New Mexico, Los Alamos National National Laboratory and the Smithsonian Institution, USA, note that over the same period atmospheric methane content fell from 650 to <500 ppbv. They speculate that part of this decline may have resulted from the extinction of the North American ‘megafauna’ and contributed to the Younger Dryas cooling between 12.8 to 11.5 ka. If that were the case, it would have been the earliest instance of a human effect on the Earth and, opine the authors, ought to be used to mark the start of what some geoscientists propose as a new geological Period: the ‘Anthropocene’. This parochial view surely ranks alongside that of a shower of nano-diamonds from an extraterrestrial explosion as the cause of the Younger Dryas, to the posthumous annoyance of William Seach of Occam.

Doubt cast on erosion and weathering theory of climate change
A seminal paper in the late 1980’s by Maureen Raymo, Flip Froelich and Bill Ruddiman proposed that the uplift of mountain ranges, their erosion and associated chemical weathering helped gradually shift global climate. Their main reasoning was that rotting of feldspars by carbonic acid formed when CO2 dissolves in rainwater locked the greenhouse gas in soil carbonates and supplied bicarbonate ions to sea water, where they would recombine with calcium and magnesium ions also released by weathering to form limestones. This process would draw down greenhouse gas levels in the atmosphere faster during episodes of major mountain building. Such carbonate burial has since been assumed to have helped the Earth’s climate cool during the Cenozoic era, after the Alps, Andes and especially the Himalaya began to form. There have been many publications about the processes involved and the geochemical signature of varying erosion, such as changes in the strontium isotope composition of limestones as a proxy for that of sea water. But the real test for whether or not there have been pulses in erosion controlled by orogeny would involve measuring changes over time in sediment deposition in all the world’s sedimentary basins. In a recent paper (Willenbring, J.K. & von Blanckenburg, F. 2010. Long-term stability of global erosion rates and weathering during late-Cenozoic cooling. Nature, v. 465, p. 211-214) published estimates of continent derived sedimentation plotted against atmospheric CO2 derived from various proxies show two features. First, there hasn’t been a truly significant decrease in CO2 since the end of the Oligocene (23 Ma). Secondly, although sedimentation over every 5 Ma rose from about 6 x 1015 to 1016 t between the end of the Oligocene and the start of the Pliocene. Repeated glaciation over the last 5 Ma helped increase global sedimentation to 3 x 1016 t, but even that tripling seems not to have had much effect on atmospheric CO2.

Willenbring and von Blanckenburg have attempted to improve the very uncertain evolution of the sedimentary record based on basin stratigraphy – despite seismic sections in many basins, costly and still rare 3-D cross sections are the only means of working out actual masses of sediment deposited through time. The authors re-examined the record of beryllium isotopes in sediments and manganese crusts from the deep-ocean floor, as a proxy for rates of weathering of continental debris. The principle behind this is the continuous production of radioactive 10Be in the atmosphere by cosmic rays, and its entry into the oceans. There it mixes with stable 9Be released to solution by weathering of rocks. Allowing for the decay of 10Be and assuming constant rates at which it is produced, the 10Be/9Be ratio in ocean water and sediments in contact with it is a proxy for global weathering. A decrease in the ratio implies an increase in continental weathering, while decreases signify periods of slowing rock breakdown. Over the last 10 Ma, the ratio has stayed more or less constant in the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. The obvious conclusion is that the last 10 Ma showed no pulse in weathering and that period did not follow the Raymo-Froelich-Ruddiman model. There are several explanations for the ‘flat-lining’ Be isotopes (Goddéris, Y. 2010. Mountains without erosion. Nature, v. 465, p. 169-171), but a rethink of the significance of any link between orogeny and climate is clearly on the cards.

On the same topic, the start of Northern Hemisphere glaciations and its 30-40 Ma lead-in, Bill Ruddiman of the University of Virginia reviews a broader range of evidence (Ruddiman, W.F. 2010. A paleoclimatic enigma. Science, v. 328, p. 838-839) but not that presented by Willenbring and von Blanckenburg. He concludes that little has changed by way of explanation since the late 1990s, and decreased CO2¬ was the primary forcing factor. Yet his own plot of atmospheric CO2 estimated from marine-sediment alkenones (organic compounds produced by some phytoplankton) shows little fluctuation in the mean concentration since 20 Ma, which is around that for the Pliocene-Pleistocene Great Ice Age.

Arsenic update

Partly because of natural processes and partly due to a shift to avoid pathogens in surface water used for domestic to a massive well-drilling programme much of rural Bangladesh and neighbouring West Bengal in India found itself the epicentre of ‘the largest mass poisoning of a population in history’, during the 1990s. The agent was soluble arsenic in various forms that reducing conditions in shallow aquifers had released by dissolving its host mineral, iron hydroxide coatings on sand grains. Geological and hydrological attributes of the two hard-hit areas helped develop a model for assessing the risks in other areas. More than a decade on from the world-wide recognition of the tragedy (local geoscientists had their suspicions much earlier) a review of arsenic hazard in both South and Southeast Asia (Fendorf, S. et al. 2010. Spatial and temporal variations of groundwater arsenic in south and south-east Asia. Science, v. 328, p. 1123-1127) is welcome but is not reassuring. The problem now extends to plains of the whole of the Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna system, the Red River of Vietnam and the Mekong of Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos and part of Thailand. Almost certainly the Indus and Irrawaddy plains are affected too, though few data are available. The review highlights a haphazard aspect of the distribution of affected wells, both in geographic location and the depth of the tapped aquifer. In the latter case, it was thought that deeper aquifers were less prone to contamination than those in the top 100 m of wells. It turns out that even at depth up to a third of wells exceed WHO recommended levels of arsenic. The positive feature is that many villagers are within walking distance of safe well water. But it is difficult to predict whether or not new wells will be risky, and little is know about safe well’s propensity to become contaminated by groundwater flow from elsewhere. Two clear messages are, first to refine methods of testing and assessing hydrogeological conditions, second to move from hand drawn water from individual wells to provision of piper water from high-yielding safe wells.

More wet minerals on Mars

A remote-sensing geologist who focuses on terrestrial matters would likely grind their teeth on seeing papers that use far better data captured from the Martian or lunar surface than are ever likely to be available from the bulk of Earth’s land surface over the next decade at least. Mine are even closer to the gums after reading about hyperspectral data from Mars with high spatial resolution (~20 m), used to locate rocks altered by water on Mars (Carter, J. et al. 2010. Detection of hydrated silicates in crustal outcrops in the northern plains of Mars. Science, v. 328, p. 11682-1686). And, of course, there is no vegetation and not much of an atmosphere to cryptify spectral features of minerals: if there is enough of a mineral exposed to show up, the Compact Reconnaissance Imaging Spectrometer for Mars (CRISM) carried by NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter will spot it. If the mineral has unique features in its spectrum, and most of the hydrated silicates do, it can be classified nicely. Less spatially sharp hyperspectral data from the Observatoire pour la Minéralogie, l’Eau, les Glaces et l’Activité (OMEGA) carried by ESA’s Mars Express is equally discriminating for larger patches.

The two instruments have shown up hundreds of small outcrops of minerals in the southern hemisphere that formed by reactions between the dominantly anhydrous minerals of Mars’s dominantly igneous crust and water. They record an early phase when liquid water was available at the surface. The question is, are they merely a thin veneer? As a check, John Carter (did bearing the same name as Edgar Rice Burroughs’ hero in his Mars novels encourage his fascination with the Red Planet?) of the University of Paris and colleagues used OMEGA and CRISM data to look at deep crust exhumed in several of Mars’s northern hemisphere craters. Clay minerals, chlorite and prehnite do show up clearly, and the hydration reactions must therefore have penetrated up to a kilometre into the crust. The same suite of minerals occur in the southern hemisphere, so during this early wet episode water was available far and wide across the Martian surface. Minerals like prehnite and chlorite are most familiar as products of low-grade metamorphism, which presents a puzzle. Maybe they formed as a result of the temperatures and pressure generated by the impacts themselves. But if that were the case they would be expected to pervade all the excavated rock, whereas they occur in distinct patches next to pristine, highly reactive olivine-rich rocks. One absentee mineral is serpentine that would definitely have formed by the reaction of water with olivine during impacts. So it looks like water pervaded the whole Martian crust down to maybe a kilometre, then this ‘weathered’ layer was blanketed much later by a thick volcanic layer which has been removed in some places by impact excavation.

• Tectonics
Underpinnings of Mediterranean tectonics
The region of the Mediterranean Sea, especially in the Aegean area, has among the most complex active tectonics on Earth. Both the African and Eurasian plates are now barely moving. The basic shaping of the region stems from Africa’s protracted collision with Europe since 40 Ma that resulted in the closure of the Mesozoic Tethys seaway and jumbled both its sedimentary fill and the continental lithosphere that lay on either side of the collision zone. But if surface motion has largely stopped, why is the Mediterranean region so tectonically active? It now seems as though it links to flow in the mantle beneath (Facenna, C. & Becker, T.W. 2010. Shaping mobile belts by small-scale convection. Nature, v. 465, p. 602-605). A mix of GPS tracking of surface motions, evaluation of surface uplift and subsidence, and analysis of seismic tomography of the mantle. Vertical motion of the mantle is most pronounced at shallow mantle depth (250 km), suggesting vigorous convection in quite small cells. The relations to tectonics are complex, but they are interlinked. For instance subducting slabs interfere with shallow mantle flow so that compensating upwellings result, and in turn help drive subduction and volcanism, as in Italy. Overall, the lithospheric motion, from GPS tracking, has a distinct vortex-like pattern in the eastern Mediterranean and Middle East, which can be modelled from the underlying mantle flow.

The ultimate iPhone app: a truly retro makeover

Now that the Neanderthal genome has revealed that non-Africans have a bit of the old chap inside us (see Yes, it seems that they did… in EPN May 2010), why not seek your inner Neanderthal? The famous Smithsonian Institution in Washington DC has released an application for iPhones, its first ever venture into ‘apps’, that allows users to morph their faces to resemble how they might have looked as a male or female H. neanderthalensis, H. heidelbergensis or even tiny H . floresiensis. The ‘app’ is called Meanderthal, which is especially apt as that neologism is street slang for a sad individual who roams supermarket aisles with a mobile phone welded to his or her ear.

Male relative of ‘Lucy’
Many people know of the amazing skeleton of a possible ancestor to humans discovered in NE Ethiopia by Donald Johanson in the late 1970s, and they know why it was dubbed ‘Lucy’. That type specimen of a female Australopithecus afarensis still figures in the media, but little appears concerning males of the species. That is not surprising for they are represented by only fragmentary and ambiguous remains. So a report on a 40% complete fossil male A. afarensis that includes limb and pelvic bones, and those of the neck, shoulder and arm is sure to cause a stir (Haile-Selassie, W. and 8 others 2010. An early Australopithecus afarensis postcranium from Woranso-Mille, Ethiopia. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science USA, v. 107, p. 12121–12126. doi/10.1073/pnas.1004527107). For starters, he is very big indeed compared with ‘Lucy’, standing between 1.5 and 1.7 m tall, and fragments of other individuals suggest that some males were larger still and within the modern human range. The conclusion must be that A. afarensis was sexually dimorphic: big males and diminutive females, which is the norm for chimps, orang utans and gorillas. Legs longer than arms suggest an upright walking posture, but the shoulder assembly is more gorilla-like than human. Yet ribs that indicate a barrel chest show a more human form than would other great apes. The authors suggest that the lack of consistent resemblance to any one of the living hominids may indicate that the last common ancestor that we share with the others may not have closely resembled any of the living forms. The big problem with the find is its antiquity: at 3.6 Ma it is a lot older than ‘Lucy’. Without teeth or at least part of a skull, assigning it to the same species carries no certainty.