Mount Etna: Europe’s Biggest Volcano ‘Sliding Towards The Sea’

The most active volcano in Europe is slowly sliding into the sea, according to new research.

Mount Etna – located on the Italian island of Sicily – is edging towards the Mediterranean at a rate of around 14mm per year.

While its movement may seem too slow to cause any concern, scientists studying the geology of the volcano have said the situation will require careful monitoring.

“I would say there is currently no cause for alarm, but it is something we need to keep an eye on, especially to see if there is an acceleration in this motion,” lead author Dr John Murray told the BBC .

This is the first time downward “basement sliding” of an entire active volcano has been directly observed.

However, studies of extinct volcanoes suggest this phenomenon can lead to “devastating” collapse of their downslope sides, resulting in landslides.

Dr Murray, who has studied Mount Etna for nearly 40 years, has worked with his team to produce lab simulations of how such activity takes place.

They concluded that despite its instability, any threat posed by the volcano’s downward trajectory will likely not arise for thousands of years.

A more pressing concern could be the disruptive effect the sliding activity will have on the monitoring of future volcanic eruptions.

Mount Etna was first recorded erupting in 1500 BC, and since then it has erupted around 200 times, with a burst of activity in recent decades.

The last such event came in 2017, when several tourists and a BBC crew were injured after being “pelted with boiling rocks and steam”.

Researchers will need to account for their new measurements when conducting eruption forecasting for Mount Etna, as the deformation caused by a lava bulge in the mountain could be impacted by its downward movement.

The study, carried out by Dr Murray and his collaborators over the course of 11 years, was published in the journal Bulletin of Volcanology.

They arrived at their conclusions using data collected with a network of precise GPS stations around the volcano that monitor tiny changes in its behaviour.

Mount Etna is moving down a very gentle slope due to its position on a base of relatively weak, loose sediments.

While the data showed the mountain was moving in an east-south-east direction, towards the coastal town of Giarre, Dr Murray confirmed there was no need for local people to be concerned.

“The thing to watch I guess is if in 10 years’ time the rate of movement has doubled – that would be a warning,” he said.

“If it’s halved, I’d say there really is nothing to worry about.”

Can Ants, Squirrels And Other Animals Sense When An Earthquake Is Coming?

Before an earthquake rattles a region, some animals within the vicinity might be able to sense the event just seconds or minutes before it happens.

The earliest reference to unusual animal behavior in response to an impending earthquake dates back to 373 B.C. in Greece, according to the United States Geological Survey (USGS).

Several days before a destructive earthquake hit, creatures such as centipedes, snakes and rats reportedly left their homes to find safe locations, according to the USGS.

Similar accounts have surfaced in the centuries since, including reports of violently moving catfish, restless or barking dogs and panicked bees abandoning their hives, according to the National Geographic.

Scientists can easily explain the cause of unusual animal behavior seconds prior to humans feeling the jolt of an earthquake, the USGS reported.

Studying animal behavior could potentially help humans in a number of ways; medicine trails being one. And then there is the whole aspect of understanding natural calamities through odd actions of animals like the ones mentioned above.

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“Many animals with senses [that are] more keen than humans are able to feel the P wave seconds before the S wave arrives,” said USGS cartographer Diane Garcia.

The USGS defines a P wave, or compressional wave, as a seismic body wave that shakes the ground back and forth in the same direction and the opposite direction of the wave’s movement.

An S wave, or shear wave, also shakes the ground back and forth, but does so perpendicular to the wave’s direction of movement.

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“Seismic activity creates stress, which releases charged particles up to the Earth’s surface and into the air,” Foster said. “Those particles transform into ions, which increases the serotonin levels in animals.”

When this occurs, creatures such as rats, weasels, mice and squirrels might behave oddly, including standing frozen in place or acting uneasy.

“This can happen anywhere from a week to just seconds prior to the actual earthquake,” Foster said. Rodents are also able to detect the primary seismic waves far more in advance than people can, he added.

“The primary waves run in the same direction and do not create much of a disturbance, hence why we don’t sense them, but secondary waves run at a right angle to the primary waves, which is the actual earthquake and what humans experience,” Foster said.

Research has also shown that ants might be able to sense an earthquake coming. In advance of earthquakes with a magnitude of 2.0 or greater, ant colonies have been observed stopping their usual activities prior to, during and up to a day after an earthquake, Foster said.

German researchers found that ahead of an earthquake, red wood ants, which prefer to live along Germany’s active faults, remained awake throughout the night outside their mound, exposed to predators. Such behavior is unusual for ants, as they’re not nocturnal creatures, Foster said.

“It’s unclear how exactly they sense the danger, but the two leading theories are that they can feel the changes of Earth’s magnetic field and sense fluctuations in carbon dioxide levels,” he said.

Most accounts of animals behaving strangely are anecdotal, and consistent, reliable behavior prior to an earthquake as well as a mechanism explaining how it might work still elude scientists, the USGS reported.

Although animals may be able to detect an earthquake seconds before the first tremor, sensing an earthquake days or weeks before it happens is a different story, according to Garcia.

“Much further research needs to be done regarding the possibility of genetic systems having evolved enough to have early warning behaviors for a seismic event,” she said

Newly Discovered Hot Magma Plume Beneath Yellowstone Volcano Stretches To Mexico

New evidence on Yellowstone’s volcanic activity might shed light on the long-debated theory on the presence of magma plume beneath the national park.

The Yellowstone caldera is a complex system of rock formations that sprung after a series of volcanic eruptions some 630,000 million years ago. This is the widely accepted theory, although there are some scientists who argue that the national park sits right on top of a “hot spot.”

Results of the investigation conducted by Peter Nelson and Stephen Grand from the University of Texas’ Jackson School of Geosciences supports the latter theory suggesting a massive magma plume beneath the park’s surface. This plume, which is the technical word for a magma foundation, appears to extend as far as Mexico.

In a geographic sense, a plume is an abnormality that exists when the earth’s core rises through the mantle forming what it appears to be a foundation of hot magma.

The study, which was published in Nature Geoscience, reported that the probability of a magma plume underneath Yellowstone could explain the heat that influences ground activities such as the Boiling River. This latest claim debunks earlier explanations that the heat source is a by-product of lithospheric movements.

Nelson and Grand’s team gathered seismic data using EarthScope’s USArray, which showed a “long, thin, sloping zone” that measured about 72 kilometers long and 55 kilometers wide. Because seismic patterns travel slower in this region of the mantle, it is understandable that it can be up to 800 degrees Celsius higher than its surrounding areas.

The emerging image revealed a 350-kilometer cylinder formation that runs all the way to the California-Mexico border.

Yellowstone is not the only one with suspected magma plume. In fact, the volcanic island of Hawaii is home to a chain of active plumes that date back millions of years ago.

In the case of Hawaii, plumes are formed when the ocean plate moves beneath land masses in a process called subduction. Rocks could get in the way during the process, then forming the plumes which are fixated on earth.

“There are many suspected plumes, or hot spots, around the Earth. Yellowstone is one of them, but it’s a bit more complex,” said Michael Poland, a scientist at the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory.

According to Polan, although the science of plumes seems complex, it has always been there posing itself as a natural geographic occurrence.

“[Plumes have] no impact on our understanding of how Yellowstone works in terms of eruptive cycles, just their driving forces. It doesn’t change our perception of volcanic activity at all,” Poland explained.

Volcano In Indonesia Belches Toxic Fumes That Poison 30 People

Thirty people were treated for sulfur gas poisoning after Mount Ijen in eastern Java belched toxic fumes from its crater, Indonesia’s disaster agency said Thursday.

Spokesman Sutopo Purwo Nugroho said more than 170 residents of several villages on the volcano’s slopes had to flee.

He said some suffered shortness of breath and vomiting following the steam and gas-based eruption about 7:15 p.m. on Wednesday.

The mountain is known for its stunning sulfur lake and night-time sulfur mining involving dangerous and backbreaking work by low paid laborers.

Sutopo said Ijen’s summit is now temporarily off limits to activities but the volcano’s overall status remains normal.

Indonesia, which straddles the seismically volatile Pacific “Ring of Fire,” has more than 120 active volcanoes.

Two-Billion-Year-Old Salt Rock Reveals Rise Of Oxygen In Ancient Atmosphere

A 2-billion-year-old chunk of sea salt provides new evidence for the transformation of Earth’s atmosphere into an oxygenated environment capable of supporting life as we know it.

The study by an international team of institutions including Princeton University found that the rise in oxygen that occurred about 2.3 billion years ago, known as the Great Oxidation Event, was much more substantial than previously indicated.

“Instead of a trickle, it was more like a firehose,” said Clara Blättler, a postdoctoral research fellow in the Department of Geosciences at Princeton and first author on the study, which was published online by the journal Science on Thursday, March 22. “It was a major change in the production of oxygen.”

The evidence for the profound upswing in oxygen comes from crystalized salt rocks extracted from a 1.2-mile-deep hole in the region of Karelia in northwest Russia. These salt crystals were left behind when ancient seawater evaporated, and they give geologists unprecedented clues to the composition of the oceans and atmosphere on Earth more than 2 billion years ago.

The key indication of the increase in oxygen production came from finding that the mineral deposits contained a surprisingly large amount of a component of seawater known as sulfate, which was created when sulfur reacted with oxygen.

“This is the strongest ever evidence that the ancient seawater from which those minerals precipitated had high sulfate concentrations reaching at least 30 percent of present-day oceanic sulfate as our estimations indicate,” said Aivo Lepland, a researcher at the Geological Survey of Norway, a geology specialist at Tallinn University of Technology, and senior author on the study. “This is much higher than previously thought and will require considerable rethinking of the magnitude of oxygenation of Earth’s 2-billion year old atmosphere-ocean system.”

Oxygen makes up about 20 percent of air and is essential for life as we know it. According to geological evidence, oxygen began to show up in the Earth’s atmosphere between 2.4 and 2.3 billion years ago.

Until the new study, however, geologists were uncertain whether this buildup in oxygen—caused by the growth of cyanobacteria capable of photosynthesis, which involves taking in carbon dioxide and giving off oxygen—was a slow event that took millions of years or a more rapid event.

“It has been hard to test these ideas because we didn’t have evidence from that era to tell us about the composition of the atmosphere,” Blättler said.

The recently discovered crystals provide that evidence. The salt crystals collected in Russia are over a billion years older than any previously discovered salt deposits. The deposits contain halite, which is called rock salt and is chemically identical to table salt or sodium chloride, as well as other salts of calcium, magnesium and potassium.

Normally these minerals dissolve easily and would be washed away over time, but in this case they were exceptionally well preserved deep within the Earth. Geologists from the Geological Survey of Norway in collaboration with the Karelian Research Center in Petrozavodsk, Russia, recovered the salts from a drilling site called the Onega Parametric Hole (OPH) on the western shores of Lake Onega.

The unique qualities of the sample make them very valuable in piecing together the history of what happened after the Great Oxidation Event, said John Higgins, assistant professor of geosciences at Princeton, who provided interpretation of the geochemical analysis along with other co-authors.

“This is a pretty special class of geologic deposits,” Higgins said. “There has been a lot of debate as to whether the Great Oxidation Event, which is tied to increase and decrease in various chemical signals, represents a big change in oxygen production, or just a threshold that was crossed. The bottom line is that this paper provides evidence that the oxygenation of the Earth across this time period involved a lot of oxygen production.”

The research will spur the development of new models to explain what happened after the Great Oxidation Event to cause the accumulation of oxygen in the atmosphere, Blättler said. “There may have been important changes in feedback cycles on land or in the oceans, or a large increase in oxygen production by microbes, but either way it was much more dramatic than we had an understanding of before.”

New Theory To Explain Why Planets In Our Solar System Have Different Compositions

A team of researchers with the University of Copenhagen and the Museum für Naturkunde, Leibniz-Institut für Evolutions has come up with a new explanation regarding the difference in composition of the planets in our solar system. In their paper published in the journal Nature, they describe their study of the calcium-isotope composition of certain meteorites, Earth itself, and Mars, and use what they learned to explain how the planets could be so different. Alessandro Morbidelli with Observatoire de la Côte d’Azur in France offers a News & Views piece on the work done by the team in the same journal issue.

As Morbidelli notes, most planetary scientists agree that the planets in our solar system had similar origins as small rocks orbiting the sun, comprising the protoplanetary disk, which collided and fused, creating increasingly larger rocks that eventually became protoplanets. But from that point on, it is not clear why the planets turned out so differently. In this new effort, the researchers have come up with a new theory to explain how that happened.

The protoplanets all grew at the same rate, the group suggests, but stopped growing at different times. Those that were smaller, they continue, stopped growing sooner than those that were larger. During this time, they further suggest, material was constantly being added to the disk. Early on it, it appears that the composition of the material was different from the material that came later, which explains why the rocky planets we see today have such differences in composition.

The researchers developed their theory after studying the calcium-isotope composition of several meteorites called angrites and ureilites, as well as that of Mars and Earth, and also from the asteroid Vesta. Calcium isotopes, they note, are involved in the formation of rock, and because of that, offer clues about their origins. The researchers found that isotopic ratios in samples correlated with the masses of their parent planets and asteroids, which they claim provides a proxy for their accretion timeline. And that, they further claim, provides evidence of the different compositions of the planets, as the smaller ones ceased accreting material while the larger ones continued to add material that was different from what had come before.

Seismologists Introduce New Measure Of Earthquake Ruptures

A team of seismologists has developed a new measurement of seismic energy release that can be applied to large earthquakes. Called the Radiated Energy Enhancement Factor (REEF), it provides a measure of earthquake rupture complexity that better captures variations in the amount and duration of slip along the fault for events that may have similar magnitudes.

Magnitude is a measure of the relative size of an earthquake. There are several different magnitude scales (including the original Richter scale), with the “moment magnitude” now the most widely used measure because it is uniformly applicable to all sizes of earthquakes. The seismic energy released in an earthquake can also be measured directly from recorded ground shaking, providing a distinct measure of the earthquake process. Earthquakes of a given magnitude can have very different radiated seismic energy.

Researchers at UC Santa Cruz and California Institute of Technology (Caltech) devised REEF in an effort to understand variations in the rupture characteristics of the largest and most destructive earthquakes, such as the 2004 Sumatra earthquake (magnitude 9.2) and 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan (magnitude 9.1). They introduced the new measurement in a paper published March 21 in Science Advances. First author Lingling Ye, a former UC Santa Cruz graduate student and Caltech postdoctoral researcher, is now at the Sun Yat-sen University in China. Her coauthors are Hiroo Kanamori at Caltech and Thorne Lay at UC Santa Cruz.

REEF is measured by the ratio of the earthquake’s actual measured radiated energy (in seismic waves recorded around the world) to the minimum possible energy that an event of equal seismic moment and rupture duration would produce. If the rupture is jerky and irregular, it radiates more seismic energy, especially at high frequencies, and this indicates frictional conditions and dynamic processes on the fault plane during rupture, Lay explained.

The researchers made systematic measurements of REEF for 119 recent major earthquakes of magnitudes 7.0 to 9.2. They found clear regional patterns, with some subduction zones having higher REEF ruptures on average than other zones.

“This indicates, for the first time, that energy release is influenced by regional properties of each fault zone,” said Lay, a professor of Earth and planetary sciences at UCSC.

The precise cause of some regions radiating higher energy in an event of given size is still under investigation, but may be linked to regional differences in the roughness of the faults, in the fluid distributions on the faults, or in the sediments trapped in the fault zone, he said.

Further research using REEF could help seismologists achieve better understanding of earthquake mechanics and earthquake hazards around the world.

This research was supported by the National Science Foundation of China, Chinese Academy of Sciences, and U.S. National Science Foundation.