Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Gone Hiking! Main Central Thrust Goriganga Valley Kumaon Himalayas

At last!

I've been waiting for this for almost 2 years. Friday, I will  be departing for the little town of Munsiyari in the Kumaon Himalayas of Uttarakhand to begin an eight day trek northwards towards the Milam and Rilam glaciers.

Just take a look!


The Munsiyari Thrust named after the town of Munsiyari is the lower bounding fault  of the Main Central Thrust Zone along which the High Himalayan Crystalline (HHC) rock sequences have been extruded over the Lesser Himalayan Metamorphic Sequence. The HHC is considered to be the Proterozoic leading edge of the Indian plate which on collision with Asia was broken up into south directed thrust sheets. The HHC is overlain by the Tethyan Sedimentary Series (TSS), a sequence of Paleozoic to Eocene marine sediments. This cover sequence has been detached during Miocene orogeny from the HHC along the Southern Tibetan Detachment Zone. The initial sense of motion along this zone may be a north directed normal sense motion, but sections have been reactivated and thrust southwards or sideways. Its crazy out there!

I hope to see as I  walk northwards from Munsiyari a mostly medium  to high grade metamorphic terrain of the HHC with the grade of metamorphism increasing northwards. Intruding this sequence are Miocene granitic bodies. I hope to see a few of those too. And at the northern limits of the trek in the Milam and Rilam glacier area maybe I will be close enough to glimpse the TSS.

That's all for  now. I am so excited! I'll be posting pictures when I get back and hopefully fill the above images with some geology too.. See you in mid March.

Monday, February 23, 2015

Human Evolution- Multiple Opportunities For Migrating "Out Of Africa"

There really seems to be a connection between orbital mechanics and human behavior, though not in a way astrologers think it to be!

From the early online February issue of Geology-

The dispersal of human populations out of Africa into Arabia was most likely linked to episodes of climatic amelioration, when increased monsoon rainfall led to the activation of drainage systems, improved freshwater availability, and the development of regional vegetation. Here we present the first dated terrestrial record from southeast Arabia that provides evidence for increased rainfall and the expansion of vegetation during both glacial and interglacial periods. Findings from extensive alluvial fan deposits indicate that drainage system activation occurred during Marine Isotope Stage (MIS) 6 (ca. 160–150 ka), MIS 5 (ca. 130–75 ka), and during early MIS 3 (ca. 55 ka). The development of active freshwater systems during these periods corresponds with monsoon intensity increases during insolation maxima, suggesting that humid periods in Arabia were not confined to eccentricity-paced deglaciations, and providing paleoenvironmental support for multiple windows of opportunity for dispersal out of Africa during the late Pleistocene.

One popular compact version of the dispersal of Homo sapiens from Africa was that ecological opportunities and evolution of behavioral sophistication likely coincided beginning around 60,000 years ago or so. Human dispersal from that point on colonized the continents, replacing older human populations (descendants of Homo erectus).

This work provides evidence that it would have been possible during earlier times for modern humans to exploit opportunities in Arabia. Indeed there are tool assemblages in Arabia which are more than 100,000 years old and are very similar to the Nubian Middle Stone Age style found in Sudan suggesting a link between those peoples.

Take a look at the opportune time periods. They occur at around 20,000 year intervals. That aligns with climatic changes associated with the precessional  orbital cycles of 23,000 years frequency. And what are Marine Isotope Stages? The oxygen isotope ratio (O18/O16)  in sea water fluctuates in response to glacial buildup at the poles and to glacial melting and influx of more fresh water into the oceans. During glacial buildup more of the lighter isotope gets trapped in ice (since the lighter isotopes preferentially evaporates and falls as snow in the polar regions) and sea water becomes correspondingly "heavier". During glacial melting, influx of fresh water contributes O16 and sea water becomes "lighter". When  marine organisms like foraminifera  build their calcium carbonate (CaCO3) skeletons, they incorporate differing amounts of the oxygen isotopes in different climatic regimes (glacial versus non glacial). So, their skeletal isotope composition, which geologists measure, becomes a proxy for sea water composition.

If Arabia was colonized much earlier then did Homo sapiens enter India earlier (with a coastal route from Arabia onwards to India) than the unequivocal evidence around 45,000 years or so? Or China and other parts of Asia?  There is quite a controversy about this question. A team led by Michael Petraglia at the University of Oxford, UK think they have evidence of modern human presence in India much before 75,000 years ago based on tool assemblages found below a datable volcanic ash layer attributable to the Toba eruption. One problem has been that the skeletal record of hominins in India is very poor. Scientists have had to rely almost exclusively on the tool record and comparing particular tool assemblages across continents and assigning them as a handiwork of specific human species can be problematic.

Friday, February 20, 2015

Rigged: The Slow Decline Of India's National Oil Company

This article came out last year but I came across it today via twitter. In Caravan magazine Krishn Kaushik  writes about India's flagship oil  company the Oil and Natural Gas Corporation Limited and its failure over the years to live up to its mission of finding and producing fuel for the country.

This failure has many causes as Kaushik explores- institutional inertia is one important one, government interference in company functioning is another. But there are also a host of private interests trying to exploit the company's wealth. Reliance comes under particular criticism for its alleged manipulation of the bidding process.

Here is one example:

Things only got better for Reliance with the introduction of the New Exploration Licensing Policy. The former ONGC director told me that during his tenure under the NELP regime, both the Directorate General of Hydrocarbons and the petroleum ministry—then headed by VK Sibal and the Congressman Murli Deora, respectively—made at least three unconventional decisions that disadvantaged ONGC and awarded contracts to Mukesh Ambani.

Bids for oil and gas blocks are given points according to various criteria, he explained. One of these is meterage, the depth of the wells a company offers to drill. In principle, the deeper the better—but every hydrocarbon field has a natural “basement,” based on its geological ability to retain hydrocarbon fuels, beyond which it doesn’t make sense to go. In the Cambay Basin, the director said, “everybody knows that the depth cannot be more than 3,500 metres.” But Reliance “bid 5,000 metres stroke basement”—whichever came first. “They got marks for 5,000, whereas ONGC couldn’t write more than 3,500 because we knew we would hit the basement below that.”

There are also points for how much territory a contractor will explore with three-dimensional seismic surveys. In another NELP round, Reliance offered to survey more than the total area of the block on offer, the director claimed. “So they got marks on that.”

There are also allegations that Reliance is  sucking out natural gas from adjacent blocks under ONGC control in the Krishna Godavari offshore basin. ONGC has taken the government to court over this! .. and the list goes on..

Between all these shenanigans is a bizarre episode of how Russian geologists helped discover Mumbai High,  India's biggest off shore oil field-

Discussing its aleatory nature, Sunjoy Joshi, the director of the Observer Research Foundation, a Reliance-funded think tank, told me a story he heard from Subir Raha, a former chairman and managing director of ONGC. “I don’t know if there is any record of this story,” Joshi said, before relating how Raha, who died in 2010, used to say that the Russians had been engaged to do the surveys far out to sea, “where geologists thought there was better possibility of finding oil and gas. But they had to justify coming to the shore more and more often, to screw all the girls in Kamathipura,” Mumbai’s oldest and largest red-light district. Moving their operations closer to land, they eventually found India’s most prolific oil field to date. “The discovery of Mumbai High,” Joshi continued, chuckling, “owes a lot to those poor women.”

Its a long read but well worth it.

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Pangea: The Animated Life of Alfred Wegener

Another winner from Flora Lichtman and Sharon Shattuck. The duo are responsible for producing animated science documentaries. Their previous effort includes the beautiful The Animated Life of A.R Wallace.

This recent one is on another Alfred...Wegener.  He proposed in 1910 that continents drift. They must have once been together but then they broke apart and shifted positions through geological history. Wegener had spent time in the Arctic and in Greenland working as a meteorologist and the documentary proposes that his observations on the movements of icebergs and icefloes and the way broken pieces of ice could fit like a jigsaw puzzle primed his mind into similar thoughts about continents.

I'm really liking this series of documentaries on great science discoveries.

Do  watch this- Animated Life: Pangea

Monday, February 16, 2015

Darwin: Encounters In Patagonia and Peru

I'm late by a few days for a Darwin Day 2015 post but wanted to share a couple of passages from Darwin's biography by Adrian Desmond and James Moore which show more facets of his life and personality.

During the survey of Patagonia,  Darwin took to exploring the immense pampas on his  own, hiring guides and horses and living the life  of a gaucho. He was enjoying himself and yet there was an ugly underbelly to this newly constituted society of ranching and exploitation of the great grasslands of Argentina-

Darwin was becoming quite a gaucho himself. The rough-riding suited him perfectly. At night, crouched around a fire, eating roasted game, he jotted down notes and relaxed. "I.. drink my Mattee and smoke my cigar, and then lie down and sleep as comfortably with the Heavens for a Canopy as in a feather bed.' Well  armed, with fresh horses and ruthless companions he had little to fear from the hostiles. Indeed, he was beginning to  appreciate the "great benefits" of General Rosas's war of extermination'. For landowners it promised a bonanza. 'It will open four or 500 miles in length of fine country for the produce of cattle'

Extermination meant the elimination of the native South American population. Darwin did abhor such tactics. He came from an abolitionist background and enslavement and mistreatment of natives affected and disgusted him. Yet, his thinking about the place of natives in human society reflected his own class upbringing. He firmly saw European civilization as superior to other cultures.  He welcomed European settlement of these lands and the conversion of the natives to Christianity. He regarded natives, especially the Fuegians he met in Argentina as a particularly backward and deprived lot. He despaired about the meaning of the variation in human cultures he was witnessing. He hoped that a different upbringing may bring change to the natives and they could learn the ways of the "civilized" world. He turned to the Fuegian natives who had lived in England and spoke English and dressed like Englishman and thought that human behavior is adaptable and plastic. But then he felt his hopes were dashed when these same Fuegian natives reverted to their native ways when brought back to live amongst their people. Darwin then opined that millennia of living amongst harsh environments had led to ingrained habits, deep seated instincts and ways of living  that could not change. Lyell, his geological  mentor had written that humans might be different, but those differences were slight. He was thinking from a creationist point of view, that species were  brought into existence in a moment of creation and varied only slightly. Darwin on the other hand, face to face with the immense cultural differences between native South Americans and Europeans, saw a world of variation. He came close to conflating cultural differences with deep seated biological boundaries.

More that a  year later in July 1835 the HMS Beagle was in Lima, Peru.

There was faded grandeur, but only one thing turned his head. He 'could not keep [his] eyes off the tapadas'- the elegant ladies. Their dress and manners brought out the sailor in him. He felt as though he had fallen amongst 'nice round mermaids'. 

'The ...elastic gown fits the figure closely and obliges the ladies to walk with small steps which they do very elegantly and display very white  silk stockings & very pretty feet.- They wear a black silk veil, which is fixed round the waist behind, is brought over the head, & held by the hands before the face, allowing only one eye to remain uncovered.- But then  that one eye is so black & brilliant & has such powers of motion & expression, that its effect is very powerful'.

But his time Darwin was feeling homesick  too. Ahead lay a long Pacific voyage to Australia and then home via  the Indian Ocean.

His thoughts wandered 'English lady' was someone 'very angelic & good', a type he had 'almost forgotten' about.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

On Being On The Lower Rungs Of Science Hierarchy

This made me chuckle: On being a mycologist from Adam Rogers- Proof: The Science of Booze

"It was something even I, an undergraduate who didn't know anything could do", Scott says. " I could go out there and look for stuff" In the space of one anecdote, Scott had become a mycologist. You think you were an iconoclast in college? Try being a tall, gay, banjo-playing fungus major with a microscope in  your dorm  room,  walls decorated with fungal family trees you drew yourself".

and.. this on perceived scientific hierarchy:

Magnified fungi look like alien plants from a 1930s pulp sci-fi magazine cover, or a Dr. Suess illustration rendered by Pixar. Its a weird landscape, not to everyone's taste. 'If you found a new deer, you'd be on the cover of Nature," says John Taylor, a mycologist at UC Berkeley. "If you find a new fungus, you're in the middle pages of Mycotaxon. But we're not bitter".

That last sentiment reminded me of a conversation I had a long time ago. It was during my M.Sc field training week in Central  India. We were walking back to  camp after a long day's tramp through forests and stream beds. The conversation turned to career choices and the merits and excitement  of getting into a science career. One faculty with us reminded us not to expect attention. Most scientists  will live through  a low profile career.  They will meet a small circle of colleagues and peers. Their papers  will be read by a few  handful of others. You need  to accept this and be satisfied that your  choice and your work is adding  incrementally to our knowledge. Don't expect revolutions.

Is there a division in geology between glamorous and less weighty fields? Again, I  am reminded of the situation during my graduate days at Pune University. The geology department there grew out of a hard rock petrology tradition. There were experts galore on igneous, metamorphic rocks, structure and tectonics and field mapping. Sedimentologists studying hard, consolidated, heavily diagenetically altered and cemented rocks were considered real geologists. Working on unconsolidated Quaternary sediments and landforms was looked down upon. Even worse was if you were in the "environmental" field. Dibbling  dabbling with water samples was just not worth the trouble! It's not hard core geology- was the majority voice.

But times are changing.  The recent impetus in studying climate change means that Quaternary sediments and the secrets they hold about past climates and sea level changes is a hot area of research. So are fields like environmental geochemistry, spurred by increasing social awareness and a tougher regulatory regime, geared towards understanding the myriad pollution problems we face today. They attract funding from government grants and younger faculty and scientists are seizing the opportunity and launching their careers on *shudder* ..the unconsolidated stuff..