Institute for Geophysics

Photo Credit: Amy Zhang | Daily Texan Staff

Thanks to a fast-growing stalagmite named Big Taurius, climate scientists now have a better understanding of rainfall patterns affecting nearly half the planet.

The stalagmite was discovered by UT researcher Dr. Jud Partin, who was joined by several researchers in UT’s Institute for Geophysics and published the results of his research in the Sept. 6 issue of “Geology.”  The study focused on rainfall patterns in the South Pacific Convergence Zone, which covers a vast portion of the Pacific Ocean and impacts the entire Pacific Basin, Partin said.

While previous studies were limited to rainfall measurements conducted beginning in the 1900’s, the new study incorporates data from as far back as 1560 from the island nation of Vanuatu in the South Pacific Ocean where the field research was conducted.

“The past is the key to understanding the future, not the present,” Partin said.

The study found greater variance in rainfall in the past, which current models fail to predict, suggesting possible shifts in the location of the South Pacific Convergence Zone, Partin said.  

“This affects everything around the Pacific Ocean,” he said.

Recording precise rainfall using scientific instruments is a modern practice, and rainfall records dating back to the early 20th century are spotty, Partin said. Big Taurius, named for the Taurius Cave where the stalagmite was discovered, is what climate researchers refer to as a proxy.

Proxies, which include samples of coral, the discarded shells of plankton and stalagmites like Big Taurius, allow researchers to incorporate data from past eras. For this reason, Partin and his team of scientists are referred to as paleoclimatologists.  

Dr. Terry Quinn, a co-author of the study and fellow researcher in the Institute for Geophysics, leads what he calls “team paleo,” a group of professors, Ph.D.’s and undergraduates who take a team approach to studying climate by unlocking the past.  

The ultimate goal, Quinn said, is to answer a common question: What is normal weather?

The addition of carbon dioxide through human activity has raised speculation about whether 20th century data represents “normal” weather patterns, Quinn said.  

“It’s easier to look at a time when we weren’t running the CO2 experiment,” he said.

Kaustubh Thirumalai, a graduate student in the school of geosciences, who worked on the study, echoed the value of using the past to understand the future.  

“Looking into the past helps us understand where we may go,” Thirumalai said. 

Projects in Antarctica by UT researchers in the Institute for Geophysics could be affected by a summary of plans released by the National Science Foundation to improve research and facilities in the United States Antarctic Program.

The National Science Foundation released the report, “More and Better Science in Antarctica Through Increased Logistical Effectiveness,” last week as a response to ten recommendations made by the U.S. Air Force Blue Ribbon Panel. The panel was put in place to conduct an independent review of policy and advise the agency on how to improve its logistical capabilities.

UT Research scientist associate, Joseph MacGregor, said he understands why the foundation has chosen to take this approach given the challenging budget situation.

“Program managers and proposal review panels already consider the logistics burdens of proposal projects, although the latter group does so perhaps more indirectly than the former,” Macgregor said. “Reviewing the scientific merit of proposals is already a lot of work, so I’m concerned that requiring a more formal review of logistics costs will shift added burden to scientists if it is not implemented effectively.”

The report indicated the foundation has already begun implementing many of the cost-saving ideas proposed by the Blue Ribbon Panel. 

According to UT research scientist associate, Britney Schmidt, most of the logistical costs are for maintaining sites, which is necessary, and not due the impact of any one grant.

“Of course there are probably ways to cut back, but I think we’re in a climate of cutting for cutting’s sake, and at some point, you start cutting out the ability to do great science,” Schmidt said.

Representatives of the foundation are considering ways to reduce the size of its ice-equipped aircraft fleet, which has become costly. Schmidt said this year there were already too few flights scheduled for the C17 aircraft impacting everyone on site.

“This impacted everyone because science equipment was late, which can extend or prevent program operation,” Schmidt said. “By saving a few flights' cost, you might actually lose more money by having to have more people around the site for longer, or by having to have a second season for some programs that can’t finish their objectives. Or worse, not having the ability for programs to finish their objectives, which has all kinds of costs you might not be able to put on a line item.”

Forcing principal investigators and review panels to consider the cost effectiveness of their institution’s proposed work is concerning to senior research scientist Don Blankenship.

“There is no way an individual [principal investigators] can accommodate the full spectrum of these imperatives within a particular proposal and if we tried to address those issues there would be significant push back by our reviewers as well as the administrators overseeing the proposal process,” Blankenship said. “The bottom line here is that we will continue to propose work that is justifiably efficient within the NSF operational system as we understand it.”

UT scientists are surveying the Long Island and New York coastlines to determine how Hurricane Sandy affected the sea floor. 

John Goff, senior research scientist at Institute for Geophysics at the Jackson School of Geosciences, is the principal investigator of the survey. Goff said the team is focusing on areas of the coast that were previously surveyed to see how and if Hurricane Sandy changed the deposition of sediment on the sea floor. The rapid response survey is in cooperation with scientists from Stony Brook University and Adelphi University.

“Our ultimate goal is to understand the ‘sediment budget’ associated with a storm: Where is the sediment being removed?” Goff said. “Where is it being deposited? How is this movement affecting the long-term health of the protective barrier island system?”

Barrier islands are narrow, offshore islands that separate ocean from bays and estuaries that are present off the New York and Texas coasts, Goff said.

“Barrier islands do a lot to protect inland communities from storm damage, as well as create invaluable wetlands,” Goff said.

Goff and his team obtained funding from the School of Geosciences, with additional funding from the National Science Foundation that enabled the team to collect sediment samples. In total, the survey will cost about $150,000.

“The types of data we are collecting includes multibeam bathymetry, which measures the topography of the sea floor, backscatter, which is like an acoustic photograph of the sea floor and helps us determine sediment types, and physical samples of the sediments,” Goff said.

Beth Christensen, an associate professor at Adelphi University, said she hopes information from the survey will be passed on to urban planners.

“There’s also a strong push for scientific communication in Long Island,” Christensen said. “We’ll be able to tell the planners whether the sand is present, whether it’s moved downstream in the offshore current and we’ll also have a feel for how the beach decays.”

Cassie Browne, graduate student in the School of Geosciences, is keeping an “unofficial record” of the cruise with a blog of the crew’s daily activities on the Institute of Geophysics’ website. She describes the importance of taking sediment samples in determining the effects of the storm. 

“These data on the storm are important because we, as a scientific community, do not understand how large storms affect things such as coastal resources or beaches, or plant and animal habitats offshore and in marsh area,” Browne said. “In order to protect and preserve our beautiful beaches for future generations, we must study how storms change them and figure out how to work with Mother Nature instead of against her.”

Europa, one of Jupiter’s at least 63 moons, is about 500 million miles away from earth, but comes closer to resembling our planet and providing potential for life than anything else in the solar system, researchers said.

UT researchers discovered what they said appears to be a body of liquid water the volume of the North American Great Lakes locked inside the icy shell of Europa.

The “lake” holds potential as a habitat for life, and there may be many more such lakes throughout the shallower regions of Europa’s shell, said lead author Britney Scmhidt, postdoctoral fellow at the Institute for Geophysics, in the article.

The idea of liquid water beneath Europa’s surface is nothing new, said Robert Pappalardo, senior research scientist for NASA.

“For a while now, since the first Galileo pictures in the mid-90s, there has been mounting evidence that there is a liquid water ocean under the icy shell of Europa,” Pappalardo said. “Although how far down has been a topic of debate.”

Researchers focused on images from Galileo, the first satellite to orbit Jupiter, which showed two roughly circular, bumpy features on Europa’s surface called “chaos terrains.”

The chaos terrains look like an ice-covered puddle all broken up and full of little ice pieces, said Don Blankenship, co-author and senior research scientist at the Institute for Geophysics.
Pappalardo said according to Blankenship and Schmidt’s model, these chaos terrains are formed by blobs of warm ice, which are heated as Europa orbits Jupiter.

“[Europa] is squeezed,” Pappalardo said. “It flexes in and out, and that creates heat like bending a paper clip back and forth.”

The squeezed blobs of warm ice, like a lava lamp, float to the surface, pushing the surface up, Pappalardo said.

As the ice melts, the water takes up less room causing the surface to cave in, forming fractures near the surface.

The lake of water, which exists beneath the sinking ice shelf, may provide a mechanism for transferring nutrients and energy between the surface and the vast ocean which is thought to exist beneath, according to their research.

Interaction between the surface and the ocean beneath could make Europa and its ocean more habitable, Schmidt said.

Pappalardo said the model is a step forward in understanding the potentially habitable moon, but that further exploration is necessary. Pappalardo and his team of scientists are planning a six-year space mission, which he estimates will start in 2020.

The federal government cut nearly $240 million to NASA’s 2011 budget, consequently cutting funds to many of NASA’s programs. However, Pappalardo said Washington continues to see the value in the space mission and have called Europa a top-priority.

Pappalardo said sending a satellite to Europa would cost around $1.5 to $2 billion, “a large amount,” but a worthwhile one, he said.

“It comes out to a dollar a person, kind of a candy bar or a can of soda per person per year to fund a planetary mission like this,” Pappalardo said. “That is not too bad to understand whether there are habitable regions elsewhere in the solar system.”