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Geoscience That Made Headlines in 2018

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Lava flows from the LERZ eruption of Kīlauea, seen in July 2018. USGS/HVO.

Lava flows from the LERZ eruption of Kīlauea, seen in July 2018. USGS/HVO.

2018 was quite a year across the geosciences … which is hardly shocking considering we live on the most geologically active planet in the solar system. Some of the events were tragic, because when it comes to headlines, that is what gets the most attention. Others were warnings of things that could be headed our way and others were, thankfully, downright exciting and uplifting. Here’s my quick takes on some of the big geoscience events from the year that was:

Lower East Rift Zone Eruption at Kīlauea

I suppose for a volcanologist like me, it would be hard to top the largest eruption in the United States since 1980. Not only that, the surprising eruption of Kīlauea from its Lower East Rift Zone (top) — the first in half a century —  dumped over 1 cubic kilometer of lava out and collapsed the summit of the Hawaiian volcano. Thankfully the eruption was free of fatalities and only had a few minor injuries. Unfortunately, many people in the lower East Rift Zone communities of Lelani Estates and Vacationland Hawaii lost the homes and livelihoods.

Indonesian Tsunamis

Indonesia was struck but multiple tsunamis in 2018, neither of which were caused by the same mechanisms that generated the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami. In September, a tsunami swept through parts of Sulawesi. This tsunami was likely caused by a submarine landslide triggered by an earthquake. The combined impact was over 2,200 deaths and tens of thousands of people made homeless, especially in the city of Palu.

This combination of synthetic aperture radar images taken by JAXA's ALOS-2 satellite and analyzed by Geospatial Information Authority of Japan shows Indonesia's Anak Krakatau volcano, center in images, before and after the Dec. 22, 2018, eruption. The images were taken on Aug. 20, 2018, left, and on Dec. 24, 2018, right, respectively. The satellite imagery showed a deformation on the volcano's southwest side. (JAXA - Geospatial Information Authority of Japan)

This combination of synthetic aperture radar images taken by JAXA’s ALOS-2 satellite and analyzed by Geospatial Information Authority of Japan shows Indonesia’s Anak Krakatau volcano, center in images, before and after the Dec. 22, 2018, eruption. The images were taken on Aug. 20, 2018, left, and on Dec. 24, 2018, right, respectively. The satellite imagery showed a deformation on the volcano’s southwest side. (JAXA – Geospatial Information Authority of Japan)

Just this month, a collapse of part of Anak Krakatau during an eruption triggered a tsunami in the Sunda Strait. Almost half of the volcano that grew inside the caldera formed by the massive 1883 eruption of Krakatau fell into the sea and the resulting tsunami has killed over 225 people so far. Since the collapse, the volcano has been producing explosive volcanic eruptions caused by magma interacting with seawater — something called Surtseyan-style eruptions.

Mysterious Mayotte Seismic Waves

A long-lasting seismic swarm had been occurring off the island of Mayotte in the Indian Ocean for months, but it wasn’t until November that the seismicity made the headlines. Whatever is causing the swarm produced seismic waves that were detected across the planet, although no singular large earthquakes happened. This planetary “ring” may be caused by something to do with Mayotte’s volcanic heritage — these earthquakes and tremor might be caused by magma rising up near the island under the sea, although Mayotte has not seen volcanic activity (that we know of) in over 4,000 years.

Earthquake Triggers Massive Landslides in Japan

A magnitude 6.7 earthquake struck on the island of Hokkaido in Japan and due to the unstable soils of the hills in the region, dozens of massive landslides were triggered by the temblor. Over 40 people died in the earthquake and over 10,000 homes were destroyed by the landslides or earthquake. Before-and-after images of the area show how many hillslopes moved due to the shaking. The volcanic substrate in the area is made of relatively loose debris that weathers easily, likely adding to the intensity of the landslides.

First* Seismometer on the Surface of Mars

NASA's Insight lander placing a seismometer on the surface of Mars. NASA.

NASA’s Insight lander placing a seismometer on the surface of Mars. NASA.

NASA’s Insight lander reached Mars in November and since then, the robot has placed the first seismometer on the Martian surface. Yes, Viking did have a seismometer, but it was placed on the deck of those 1970’s landers, so they didn’t produce much useful data. The new seismometer on Insight is on the ground and such be able to detect Martian temblors so we can map out the interior of the planet. This is the first in what is hopefully a new wave of exogeology on Mars and beyond.

Anchorage Hit By Large Earthquake

In late November, a magnitude 7 earthquake struck just outside of Anchorage in Alaska, causing significant damage but luckily little in the way of casualties. Roads collapses but were quickly repaired. This was the six large earthquake to strike near the city over the past century, but its relatively shallow depth and proximity to the city meant it was felt widely across the region.

U.S. 2018 Climate Report

In November, the U.S. government (reluctantly) released the latest climate report and the forecast is grim. Not only is climate change still occurring unabated, but the report clearly details the changes we are already seeing across the country. These include the massive wildfires like the Camp Fire in California, agricultural issues across the Midwest and more. The report predicts that these climate shifts will impact the U.S. economy negatively to the tune of 10% of the current GDP. 2018 already lines up to be the fourth-warmest since we started keeping climate records.

We Arrived at Bennu

The strange world of Bennu, seen by NASA's OSIRIS-REx mission in late 2018. NASA.

The strange world of Bennu, seen by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission in late 2018. NASA.

When I picture how objects in the early solar system might have looked, I picture Bennu. The small asteroid looks like a bunch of rocks stuck together, with a rubbly surface. As objects grew in the early solar system, they accreted material — meaning rubble in the solar nebula stuck together, getting bigger and bigger. Some grew big enough to form planets and moons, and even start melting like Earth. Smaller objects never did that and Bennu might be just one of those objects. NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission arrived to study Bennu and hopefully collect a sample, much like Japan’s Hayabusa2 at the asteroid Ryugu.

2019 will start off with a bang, as New Horizons reaches the Kuiper Belt object Ultima Thule on the first day of the year. We’ve never visited one of these primordial worlds beyond Pluto and New Horizons will pass closer to Ultima Thule than it did to Pluto and Charon. It should be a great way to start off the new year!

If you have any geoscience stories that really caught your attention, leave them here in the comments!

 

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Ecology

Today’s letters: ‘Visionary’ plans don’t always work in Ottawa

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The opinion piece written by Tobi Nussbaum, CEO of the NCC, declares that a “bold, visionary transit plan” would showcase the capital.

As a long-term resident of Ottawa, I’ve had it with visionary plans. In the 1950s, the streetcars serving Ottawa so well were sent to the scrapyards. In the early ’60s, Queensway construction bulldozed established neighbourhoods and ripped the city apart. Later in the decade, the downtown railway station, which could have formed the hub of a commuter network, was relocated to the suburbs. These actions, in the name of “progress,” were undertaken with the “vision” to make Ottawa a car-reliant city.

Now we have an LRT, built just in time for most people to realize that they do not have to go downtown as they can work from home.

Current thinking is pushing a new “link” between Ottawa and Gatineau, with yet more expensive and disruptive infrastructure projects being touted, including a tramway or another tunnel under the downtown core.

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That was then: Biggest earthquake since 1653 rocked Ottawa in 1925

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A regular weekly look-back at some offbeat or interesting stories that have appeared in the Ottawa Citizen over its 175-year history. Today: The big one hits.

The Ottawa Senators were playing a Saturday night game against the Montreal Canadiens at the Auditorium, the score tied 0-0 halfway through the second period. Sens’ rookie Ed Gorman and the Habs’ Billy Boucher had just served penalties for a dustup when the building began to make “ominous creaking sounds.” A window crashed to the ground.

Nearby, at Lisgar Collegiate, all eyes were on teenager Roxie Carrier, in the role of Donna Cyrilla in the musical comedy El Bandido. She had the stage to herself and was singing “Sometime” when the building rocked, the spotlight went out, and someone in the audience yelled “Fire!”

At a home on Carey Avenue, one woman’s normally relaxed cat suddenly arched its back, rushed around the room two or three times, spitting angrily, and climbed up the front-window curtains.

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Ottawa delays small nuclear reactor plan as critics decry push for new reactors

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TORONTO — Canadians will have to wait a little while longer to see the federal government’s plan for the development of small nuclear reactors, seen by proponents as critical to the country’s fight against global warming.

Speaking at the opening of a two-day virtual international conference on Wednesday, the parliamentary secretary to the minister of natural resources said the plan will lay out key actions regarding the reactors. Its launch, Paul Lefebvre said, would come in the next few weeks.

“We’re still putting the finishing touches on it,” Lefebvre said. “The action plan is too important to be rushed.”

Small modular reactors — SMRs — are smaller in size and energy output than traditional nuclear power units, and more flexible in their deployment. While conventional reactors produce around 800 megawatts of power, SMRs can deliver up to 300 megawatts.

Proponents consider them ideal as both part of the regular electricity grid as well as for use in remote locations, including industrial sites and isolated northern communities. They could also play a role in the production of hydrogen and local heating.

“SMRs will allow us to take a bold step of meeting our goal of net-zero (emissions) by 2050 while creating good, middle class jobs and strengthening our competitive advantage,” said Lefebvre.

Natural Resources Minister Seamus O’Regan had been scheduled to speak at the conference but did not due to a family emergency.

Industry critics were quick to pounce on the government’s expected SMR announcement. They called on Ottawa to halt its plans to fund the experimental technology.

While nuclear power generation produces no greenhouse gas emissions, a major problem facing the industry is its growing mound of radioactive waste. This week, the government embarked on a round of consultations about what do with the dangerous material.

Dozens of groups, including the NDP, Bloc Quebecois, Green Party and some Indigenous organizations, oppose the plan for developing small modular reactors. They want the government to fight climate change by investing more in renewable energy and energy efficiency.

“We have options that are cheaper and safer and will be available quicker,” Richard Cannings, the NDP natural resources critic, said in a statement.

Lefebvre, however, said the global market for SMRs is expected to be worth between $150 billion and $300 billion a year by 2040. As one of the world’s largest producers of uranium, Canada has to be part of the wave both for economic and environmental reasons, he said.

“There’s a growing demand for smaller, simpler and affordable nuclear technology energy,” Lefebvre said.

Joe McBrearty, head of Canadian Nuclear Laboratories, told the conference the company had signed a host agreement this week with Ottawa-based Global First Power for a demonstration SMR at its Chalk River campus in eastern Ontario. A demonstration reactor will allow for the assessment of the technology’s overall viability, he said.

“When talking about deploying a new technology like an SMR, building a demonstration unit is vital to the success of that process,” McBrearty said. “Most importantly, it allows the public to see the reactor, to kick the tires so to speak, and to have confidence in the safety of its operation.”

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