Sunday, October 31, 2021

Books: Volcanoes, Mammals, Himalayas

 New arrivals on my book shelf.

Fire and Ice: Volcanoes of the Solar System. Earth has them. So does the Moon and Mars. While eruptions on these three is molten silicate magma, there is plenty of variety in the rest of the Solar System. Io has sulphur rich emissions which drape the surface with a coating of  sulphur. Pluto has eruptions of nitrogen, methane, and ammonia that solidifies to form icy rock. Tidal forces unleased by Saturn on its moon Enceladus ruptures the moon's surface and triggers eruptions of fluids that fall back as snow and also contribute to the formation of Saturn's rings. Volcanologist Natalie Starkey delves into our current understanding of volcanoes of the Solar System and what we can learn from them about planetary evolution. Fascinating topic!


Beasts Before Us: The Untold Story of Mammal Evolution and Origins. Untold because most authors begin where the Dinosaurs end. The starting point is  usually at 66 million years ago, when a meteorite changed the world in an instant, reorganizing and vacating ecosystems into which mammalian lineages radiated. The story told by Elsa Panciroli goes way back, when Synapsids, the branch that led to mammals diverged from the common ancestor of mammals and reptiles. Repeat three times before going to sleep every night. Mammals did not evolve from Reptiles. These two groups shared a common ancestor in the Carboniferous about 300 million years ago. More and more fossils  are revealing that these early mammalian lineages were quite diverse, and not mere stunted underlings to the more popularly known Dinosaurs. For a lucid audio discussion of this book, listen to Elsa Panciroli on Paleocast Podcast- Beasts Before Us

 Himalaya: A Human History. My friend Emmanuel Theophilus is sure to like this one. I am thoroughly enjoying it. I didn't know much about ancient Tibet and Nepal, and what a rich history these two regions have! Ed Douglas tells these stories with panache and verve. And with a light touch. Lost empires,  ancient trade routes, master craftsman, art, architecture, spiritual masters, crafty power brokers, bloody military campaigns, missionaries, adventurers, botanists, colonialism, and recent geopolitics.  It really is an enthralling narrative of the epic history of this mighty mountainous region. I'll use the word 'remote' more carefully hence in my conversations about the Himalaya. This one is for you Theo!  

Monday, October 25, 2021

India Fossil Outcrops, Horse Domestication, Mars Landscapes

 From the past few days:

1) India is rapidly losing fossil rich outcrops to urbanization, expanding agriculture, mining, and unregulated fossil collection.

On International Fossil Day, October 23, 2021, the Paleontological Society of India, Pune Mumbai Student Chapter, organized a very informative online symposium on this topic. I have linked to part of the talks held that day. Paleontologist Dr. Rajani Panchang was the moderator. Several young researchers describe their field work in Kutch, Tamil Nadu, and Spiti Valley. Over the past several years, changes in land use and unchecked fossil removal has resulted in outcrop degradation and impoverishment.

.Video Permanent Link - India Fossil Outcrops .

Even though the Geological Survey of India and some local agencies have identified locations of geological importance, at present India does not have a law for the preservation of geoheritage sites. D.M. Banerjee writes about the struggle to get the Indian government to take up this issue seriously in his article Fate of Indian Geoheritage and Geopark Bill, published in the July 2021 issue of Current Science.

2) The origin of domestic horses has been a tough case to crack. It was long held using archeological evidence that horses were domesticated by the Botai Culture in Central Asia around 3500 B.C. But ancient DNA studies indicated that these early domesticated lines are not the ancestors of the modern domestic horse. Instead, the origin of the modern domestic horses have been tracked to the Volga-Don region in the Western Eurasian steppes between 2500 and 2000 B.C. The abstract of the paper is worth reading through- 

Domestication of horses fundamentally transformed long-range mobility and warfare. However, modern domesticated breeds do not descend from the earliest domestic horse lineage associated with archaeological evidence of bridling, milking and corralling at Botai, Central Asia around 3500 bc. Other longstanding candidate regions for horse domestication, such as Iberia and Anatolia, have also recently been challenged. Thus, the genetic, geographic and temporal origins of modern domestic horses have remained unknown. Here we pinpoint the Western Eurasian steppes, especially the lower Volga-Don region, as the homeland of modern domestic horses. Furthermore, we map the population changes accompanying domestication from 273 ancient horse genomes. This reveals that modern domestic horses ultimately replaced almost all other local populations as they expanded rapidly across Eurasia from about 2000 bc, synchronously with equestrian material culture, including Sintashta spoke-wheeled chariots. We find that equestrianism involved strong selection for critical locomotor and behavioural adaptations at the GSDMC and ZFPM1 genes. Our results reject the commonly held association between horseback riding and the massive expansion of Yamnaya steppe pastoralists into Europe around 3000 bc driving the spread of Indo-European languages. This contrasts with the scenario in Asia where Indo-Iranian languages, chariots and horses spread together, following the early second millennium bc Sintashta culture.

The paper is open access. And there is an easier to understand article in Nature as well. 

3) The remarkable range of technologies brought to bear on understanding the geology of Mars is giving some spectacular payoffs. Two studies caught my eye:

a) Mars' surface shaped by fast and furious floods from overflowing craters: Lake breach floods produced fast flowing streams that cut deep drainage valleys, reshaping the Mars landscape. Catastrophism has played a large role in the history of Martian surface evolution.

b) The Perseverance Rover rocks on!! The stunning images it has taken of rock outcrops on Mars is enabling geologists to reconstruct details of ancient sedimentary environments. N. Mangold and colleagues describe a delta lake system and flood deposits at Jezero Crater. 

Take a look at the details available to geologists for interpreting sedimentary processes and the rock history.

On Mars, large crater lakes were sites of sediment deposition. Rivers meeting such craters dumped their sediment on the crater floor in lobes that expanded lakewards forming a delta. The architecture of the sedimentary layers within this delta environment has been vividly captured and described in this study. In the image, the bottomset strata are fine grained sediment deposited in waters ahead of the delta. The foreset strata represent deposition on the inclined growing delta front. And the foreset strata are deposits of rivers associated with the delta. The paper is quite detailed and a treat for sedimentologists. But the images can be enjoyed by all. Open Access too!  

Saturday, October 9, 2021

Maps: India Contours

Once in a while I point readers to interesting and useful web mapping applications. Last week, Raj Bhagat Palanichamy, a specialist in GIS and Remote Sensing,  showcased a contour map on his Twitter feed. Intrigued, I found out that the contour map was from a web based application developed by Axis Maps. A detailed blog post explains how they developed the application and the elevation data sources they used to generate the contours. It is quite easy to use, with some controls to set contour intervals, line color, and to depict relief in color shades. 

I am putting a few examples from different Indian terrains to showcase this utility. It is not meant to be a critical review of the app (map scale is missing!), but a fun exploration of its capabilities, and the insights one can get about topography and other aspects of geomorphology and geology. Each example has a contour map on top and a satellite image of roughly the same area in the lower panel. All contours maps have been created using Contours- Axis Maps.

Western Ghats- Edge of the Deccan Plateau: Ghangad, Tail Baila Mesas

The edge of the Deccan Plateau has been deeply dissected to form some stunning relief. Steep sided ridges, mesas, and pinnacles poke upwards from more gently sloping and flattish surfaces. This step like appearance occurs due to the differing styles in which lava flows of varying hardness weather and erode away.  Towards the left-center of the contour map, where the brown meets the darker green, is what appears to be a sinuous thick brown line. It is really an amalgamation of contours, spaced closely, due to the extremely steep slopes and cliffs that make up the Western Ghat escarpment. There is a sudden fall there from the plateau to the coastal plain. Contour interval is 100 feet. 

Himalaya-Tibetan Plateau

Notice how the closely spaced contours in the lower left of the contour map give way to more openly spaced contours towards the top right of the map. This is the transition from the Gharwal Himalaya in to the Tibetan Plateau. The Himalaya, because it receives more rainfall, has more prominent relief, formed by rivers carving deep valleys, and glaciers gouging out rock faces into steep sided, sharp edged mountains. The Tibetan Plateau, although also standing high at around 4500 meters, is in the rain shadow region. It shows less relief. 

This has impacted the geology too. In the Himalaya, the rapid stripping of rock cover over millions of years has exhumed rocks which were once buried 25 kilometers below the surface. In Tibet, lesser erosion has meant that the surface geology is still dominated by 'supracrustal rocks', either volcanic or sedimentary rocks formed at shallow levels of the crust. Erosion has not dug deep down. Contour interval is 500 feet.

Nallamalai Fold Belt- Andhra Pradesh

This map shows the folded ridges of sedimentary rocks formed in the Cuddapah Basin around 1500-1600 million years ago. A fine example of topographic expression giving away the geologic structure of the rocks. Contour interval is 200 feet. 

I would urge those readers who are on Twitter to follow Raj Bhagat Palanichamy's excellent account (@rajbhagatt). He is a mapper par excellence.

Monday, October 4, 2021

Geology Crossword

A couple of years ago I reconnected with my Florida State University friend Shanker Venkateswaran.

Shanker is quite a geology and nature enthusiast. He has put together this geology crossword for beginners on the Crossword Club website.

Click on the link below for the full set of clues and the interactive version.

Geology Crossword -