Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Volcanic Versus Human Carbon Dioxide Emissions

A couple of weeks ago Iceland awaited with much anxiety as magma made its way to the surface. A volcanic eruption seemed imminent. That danger seems to have passed for now. Seismicity has abated and magma may not break through and erupt.

Misunderstandings regarding climate change though shows no signs of receding as this comment shows - 

 Source: X - https://twitter.com/dremtee/status/1723427183182446871

Ever so often it is worth putting up the numbers:

Anthropogenic CO2 emissions - About 40-50  billion tons per year.

Volcanic CO2 emissions - Approximately 500 million tons per year.

Terry Gerlach of the U.S. Geological Survey has compiled global data on volcanic emissions  -  Volcanic Versus Anthropogenic Carbon Dioxide, published in EOS Transactions American Geophysical Union. 

This article is from 2011, but there are good explanations on volcanic emission rates and the observed discrepancy (which has increased in the 12 years since publication) between anthropogenic and volcanic emissions. 

What conditions limit volcanic CO2 emissions on present day earth? 

On average, magma contains about 1.5 weight percent dissolved CO2. Estimated annual magma production on earth amounting to about 80 billion tons won't create near enough volcanic CO2 to match human emissions. About 850 cubic kilometers of magma would be needed to be generated annually to create volcanic CO2 on an anthropogenic scale. So much magma production either under land or sea would not have gone unnoticed. 

Short lived volcanic eruptions like past events in Iceland, or Mt. Pinatubo, or Mt. St Helen's, although violent and spectacular,  didn't emit more than a few million tons of CO2. These amounts are too small to have a discernible warming effect. Large explosive eruptions in fact might cool the earth by a degree or so for a short time because the sulphur particles they emit reflect sunlight back in to space.

Can volcanism cause global warming? Yes, but over much longer time scales. 

Weathering of surface silicate rocks consumes about 500 -700 million tons of CO2 per year, offsetting the amount emitted by volcanoes. There has to be sustained volcanism at high emission rates for decades to hundreds of years to create an imbalance between weathering and volcanism and change climate. 

Cin-Ty Lee and Slyvia Dee 's  commentary on this subject explores the role of volcanism on global climate. 

Wednesday, November 15, 2023

River Nira Meander

 So near Pune, yet I had never been to this location near Bhor.

It is popularly known as necklace point. The river Nira loops its way through the countryside forming a series of lovely meanders. A high point overlooking the valley allows a clear view of this feature. 

I was on a drive with some friends, spending the day exploring the back waters of the Bhatgar and Nira Deogarh dams. We eventually reached Warandha Ghat, one of the spectacular passes linking the Deccan Plateau with the western coastal plain. 

At the edge of the plateau, high relief exposes sheer rock faces. 

The grand scale of Deccan Volcanism is manifest so clearly in the lava flows traceable over hundreds of meters despite the afternoon haze.

On a satellite image, X marks the view point looking south towards the big meander.  

This is a beautiful area near Pune to spend a day out.

Thursday, October 26, 2023

Photomicrograph: Mineral Filled Vesicle

I came across this stunning image of a mineral filled vesicle on the September 2023 cover of Geology. The rock sample was collected from the Louisville Seamount Chain in SW Pacific Ocean.

 Source: Elmar Albers et.al. 2023- Timing of carbon uptake by oceanic crust determined by rock reactivity.

Vesicles in igneous rocks are spherical holes formed by expanding gas bubbles. As lava erupts, dissolved gases bubble out. Lava solidifies fairly rapidly on exposure either to air or water. The bubble shape is retained as a small cavity. It gets filled with minerals when magmatic fluids and mineral saturated seawater or groundwater circulate and react with the rock. 

The basalt rock in this study is about 50-74 million years old. The calcite in the vesicle precipitated within 8 million years of eruption. Alteration of undersea basalt is a CO2 sink. Basalt reacts with seawater, trapping carbon in carbonate minerals. The calcium required for formation of carbonate minerals is provided by the alteration of minerals like plagioclase. The study is trying to estimate how long such carbonation reactions continue. Carbonated oceanic crust eventually sinks into the mantle at subduction zones sequestering carbon from the surface for hundreds of millions of years.

This particular vesicle is filled with carbonate (calcite) and clay. Notice the beautiful banding suggestive of pulses of mineral formation. Among the brown and white layers are white bands of faceted saw tooth calcite. And the upper part of the vesicle is filled with large irregular shaped crystals. Surrounding the vesicle is the 'groundmass', made up of tiny crystals of plagioclase feldspar, iron oxide, and volcanic glass. There is no scale in the picture, but my guess is that the vesicle is a few hundred microns across.

In a hand sample a vesicular basalt will look like the example below. This is from the Deccan Traps near Pune. 

The vesicles here are much larger than the first example. Many are empty. Some vesicles have a lining of tiny crystals. Carbonation of terrestrial basalts also constitutes a carbon sink.  Combating global warming and achieving net zero emissions will require, foremost, a steep reduction in emissions, but additionally also removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and safely storing it in long term reservoirs. Such carbon capture and sequestration projects are exploring the potential of basalts and related igneous rocks as a long term carbon sink. 

Thursday, October 19, 2023

Links: Volcanic Underworld, First Americans, Billion Year Old 3D Microfossils

Readings over the past few weeks.

1) Taking the First Steps Into a Newly Formed Volcanic Underworld: Maya Wei- Haas describes a fascinating landscape on the Canary Islands in the Atlantic Ocean. Volcanic eruptions and the transport of lava via underground tubes has formed a subterranean world of stacked lava tunnels and caves. Their mapping is ongoing and scientists hope to understand not just the details of volcanism and the hazards it poses, but also how life can colonize such nascent surfaces, powered by nutrients from minerals. As one of the scientists remarks- "lava tubes is a rare chance to watch an evolving ecosystem from time zero".

2) It looks like the 23ky old human footprints at White Sands are solid: What is the earliest securely dated evidence of people in the America's? In 2021, there was a report of human footprints from an ancient lake in New Mexico. Since the footprints themselves could not be dated, seeds of an aquatic plant that were found in the same layer were carbon dated to about 23 thousand  years ago. That result was greeted with caution. The main concern was that the seeds may have taken up much older lake water containing less of the radioactive isotope C14. This may have made the dated material look older than it actually was. 

Now, there has been more work on the geochronology of the site using two more independent lines of dating. The results agree with the previously estimated date of 23 thousand  years. ArcheoThoughts summarizes the dating methodologies. 

3) Discovery of oldest 3D-preserved microorganisms: Before organisms evolved the ability to build hard skeletons, their remains have been preserved as impressions on soft sediment or as chemical degradation products recognizable by a light carbon isotope signal. Stefanie Terp reports on a discovery of 3D preservation of microorganisms from a mine in Ukraine. They are 1.5 billion years old! 

Scanning Electron Microscopy reveals the filamentous structure of these creatures. They are most likely a variety of fungi. Groundwater in the granite environment in which they lived was saturated with aluminum and silica. The microorganisms were covered and entombed in micrometer thin layers of aluminum silicate, perfectly preserving their delicate structure.

Saturday, September 30, 2023

Iron Pisolites From Western Ghats

A reader sent me this photograph of a pebble he had collected from a stream bed near Belgaum, Karnataka.

 Photo credit: Gopisundar

These look to me like iron rich pisolites. These spheroidal grains form by the accretion of iron, manganese, and aluminum hydroxides around a nucleus. The core may be an aggregate of soil particles, a rock fragment, or even wood debris. 

You will notice that the core is quite massive and structureless but in a few grains a crude concentric layering is seen at the margins. The pisolites are bound together into a firm mass by mixture of clay and iron aluminum hydroxide. Pisolites form during prolonged episodes of chemical weathering of  rocks like basalt or shale or iron aluminum rich metamorphic rocks. They are present in thick laterite and bauxite profiles. 

The picture below is a representative example of pisolite from a location in Brazil. It shows the occurrence of pisolite layers in a weathered soil profile, along with a hand sample and a cross section under high magnification.


Source: K Marques et.al. 2022: Geochronology (preprint).

Here is a map of the landscape just south of Belgaum that I am describing in this post. 


 Source: Amanda Jean et.al 2020: Journal of Geological Society

It shows the distribution of three distinct horizons of chemically weathered soil, named as the S1, S2 and S3 surfaces. Each of these horizons consist of tens of meters of laterite or bauxite and manganese rich ore. There has been some recent success in dating these weathered layers using the mineral crytomelane, a potassium rich manganese oxide. Three distinct weathering periods are documented. As India broke away from Gondwanaland it eventually drifted northwards into tropical climatic belts. Throughout the Eocene to Miocene, long phases of hot humid climate resulted in intense chemical alteration of the Western Ghat landscape. 

The oldest soil, surface S1 in the map, formed between 53-44 million years ago. Surface S2 formed later in the Oligocene-Miocene between 39-22 million years ago. And surface S3 developed in the mid Miocene, between 14-10 million years ago. 

The graphic below tells a story of landscape evolution recorded in the formation of these three weathering profiles. 


 Source: Amanda Jean et.al 2020: Journal of Geological Society

Episodic dissection of a plateau through the Cenozoic kept stripping away rock layers, and younger bauxite and manganese rich soils formed at lower altitudes on freshly exposed rock and debris flows. The youngest surface S3 has developed on a pediment. These are layers of debris eroded from surrounding hills that accumulate in low lying areas. Surface S3 indicates a very active phase of weathering and erosion of the surrounding mountains ranges that took place between 22 and 14 million years ago. As a once contiguous plateau was fragmented, older surfaces S1 and S2 remain preserved on isolated mesas and table lands.

The pisolite my friend sent me could have broken off from one of these surfaces. Its hard to say which one. The overall light color suggests that it is aluminum rich, and may have been sourced from the bauxitic S1 or S2. But this is just a guess. 

Pebbles from a stream can hold many secrets. Don't just chuck them away :)