Silent witnesses

How geochemistry tells about climate and environments

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Gold(schmidt) Rush


Low water levels in Folsom Lake

One of the nice things about Sacramento is that, unlike LA, it has real rivers, with water in them and levees along them. This week I enjoyed a few beautiful morning runs along the American River, where there is a bicycle path on the levee. I almost felt at home!

As there were no oral sessions on Wednesday afternoon, we took the opportunity to explore the area some more and went to Folsom Lake, a reservoir in the American River about 40 km northeast of Sacramento. The on-going drought was very visible in water levels about 15 m lower than normal. Still, it is a beautiful area, and swimming was great.

Today’s plenary speakers Andrea Foster and Christopher Kim spoke about “The Environmental Legacy of California’s Gold Rush: Arsenic and Mercury Contamination from Historic Mining”. They noted that Thursday might be too late in the week to warn us for the widespread contamination with Hg and As.

Indeed, reading up on Folsom Lake I found out it flooded a mining town, Mormon Island, which has recently been exposed for the first time in 55 years because of the drought. Assuming the mine and its tailings are also under that lake, I might indeed have had second thoughts about swimming! However, apparently it is safe to eat the fish caught there, so I’m not too worried.


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Across California

Goldschmidt in California meant a drive instead of a flight. The route from Pasadena to Sacramento lead us through the Central Valley of California. While living in greater LA we have been well aware of the drought going on in this state, it was still quite sad to see the many fields transformed into desert, and almond plantations dead and cut down. We also saw the thermometer steadily go up to a balmy 43 °C.

Bronson Canyon (the Bat Cave) in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, California (photo by Mark S. Cramer, MD, FAAFP).

Bronson Canyon (the Bat Cave) in Griffith Park, Los Angeles, California (photo by Mark S. Cramer, MD, FAAFP).

Monday was mostly a day of talks on the solar system. Starting off with Andrew Westphal talking about fluffy interstellar particles, and Meenakshi Wadhwa showing that the Solar System originated in an active star forming region, it was very interesting to learn about the latest science coming from the Curiosity Mars Rover, during the plenary by Pamela Conrad. David Blake had a great follow-up on this with his keynote on the mineralogy of mudstones at Yellowknife Bay, Mars. Who knew that the best Earth-analog for these mudstones is also the entrance to the Bat Cave!

Today’s session on Coastal Archives of Climate Change was one of my highlights so far. Very interesting catching up with what has been happening in sclerochronology and related fields. Howard Spero showed some beautiful seasonal isotope records of oyster shells from Jamestown, Virginia, the first permanent English settlement in the Americas. Heather Black also spoke about oysters, but showed human influence in historic nitrogen isotope records.

Goldschmidt is also the conference where there are always lots of people that look at biomineralisation in great detail. This afternoon’s keynote by Susan Stipp was an excellent and engaging presentation on why this is relevant, and how some of the regulation on mineralization by organisms works.

For my own session and presentation I still have to wait until Thursday evening (posters) and Friday morning (orals). In the meantime there will be a lot more exciting science to hear about. You can follow some of it on Twitter #goldschmidt2014.

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Two weeks ago I was at the European Geosciences Union Annual Assembly in Vienna. I promised to blog about it, but apart from some tweets, miserable failed at that. I did write a short trip report for the Mineralogical Society, who provided funding. Here it goes:

The Mineralogical Society enabled me to attend this year’s European Geosciences Union General Assembly by means of a Senior Bursary. My postdoctoral project at NASA-JPL has yielded interesting data on speciation of carbon in basalts, and carbon in the food chain around the world’s deepest hydrothermal vents (Mid-Cayman Rise). I have been keen to present and discuss my findings at an international meeting and an excellent opportunity to do so arose with the session “Hydrothermal energy transfer and its relation to ocean carbon cycling: from mechanisms and rates to services for marine ecosystems” at EGU2014.

As I am relatively new to the field of hydrothermal vent research, it was exciting to meet people, whom I only knew by name. The session started off with several excellent oral presentations, of which I learned a lot. Did you know, for example, that Hydrothermal particulate organic carbon could be the dominant source of carbon to the seafloor? And that iron in the ocean probably mostly derives from hydrothermal sources? In the afternoon I presented my poster entitled: “Previously unsuspected dietary habits of hydrothermal vent fauna: The bactivorous shrimp Rimicaris hybisae can be carnivorous”. There was considerable interest for my poster and I had some lively discussions with colleagues in the field. Also, I received some good suggestions on the interpretation of my data.

It had been five years since I had been to an EGU General Assembly, and I almost forgot how nice it is to also stay in touch with the wider field of earth sciences, and some “old” interests. It was great to learn about new developments in for example stable-isotope biogeochemistry and palaeoclimatology. After having worked in several positions in different countries, a meeting like EGU also provides the opportunity to catch up with many former colleagues. Many stories were told, but more importantly, many plans were made for research collaborations and future grant proposals. All in all, a very productive meeting. Thank you, Mineralogical Society, for enabling me to attend it!

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How Academia Resembles a Drug Gang

Alexandre Afonso

In 2000, economist Steven Levitt and sociologist Sudhir Venkatesh published an article in the Quarterly Journal of Economics about the internal wage structure of a Chicago drug gang. This piece would later serve as a basis for a chapter in Levitt’s (and Dubner’s) best seller Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (P.S.) The title of the chapter, “Why drug dealers still live with their moms”, was based on the finding that the income distribution within gangs was extremely skewed in favor  of those at the top, while the rank-and-file street sellers earned even less than employees in legitimate low-skilled activities, let’s say at McDonald’s. They calculated 3.30 dollars as the hourly rate, that is, well below a living wage (that’s why they still live with their moms). [2]

If you take into account the risk of being shot by rival gangs, ending up in jail or…

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Academic scattering

This is so unsettlingly familiar, I had to reblog it as it is.

The Research Whisperer

Katie Mack, smiling for the cameraKatie Mack has been training as a cosmologist since about the age of 10 when she decided she wanted Stephen Hawking’s job. She got her bachelor’s in physics at Caltech, PhD in astrophysics at Princeton, did an STFC postdoctoral fellowship at Cambridge, and is now a DECRA postdoctoral researcher in theoretical astrophysics at the University of Melbourne.

Her work focuses on finding new ways to learn about the early universe and fundamental physics using astronomical observations, probing the very building blocks of nature by examining the cosmos on the largest scales. Throughout her career, she has been working on the interface between astronomy and particle physics, studying dark matter, black holes, cosmic strings, and the formation of the first galaxies in the Universe.

Katie is also an active science communicator, participating in a range of science outreach programs such as Scientists in Schools and Telescopes in Schools. Her popular writing…

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