skip to primary navigationskip to content

Recent news and blogs

Addressing racial inequality and inclusion in the Department of Earth Sciences

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jun 10, 2020.

This post is a response on behalf of the Department of Earth Sciences to an open letter sent by undergraduates, postgraduates and post-docs prompted by the current vocalisation around racial injustice, and in particular the Black Lives Matter movement. The letter raises concerns about the Department and wider Earth science sector’s track records on diversity and inclusion, and urges a substantial and comprehensive shift in the approaches taken to addressing this. To date, more than 120 people have signed the letter.

Research in Lockdown: Labs Closed

By Will Knapp from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Jun 08, 2020.

It’s been just shy of two months (I think) since I cleared my desk and left Cambridge as a result of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. This blog is a bit of a summary of my life in lockdown, my thoughts about my PhD progress, and my aims for the future. I started my PhD in …

Ozone depletion blamed for the end-Devonian mass extinction

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jun 03, 2020.

359 million years ago, at the end of Devonian times, life on Earth suffered a catastrophic extinction—the cause of which has puzzled geologists for decades. Land plants and freshwater life were affected particularly badly. However, unlike other major extinctions, there is no evidence to suggest that major volcanic eruptions or asteroid impacts were to blame. Now a team of Earth scientists, including Sarah Wallace-Johnson from the University of Cambridge’s Sedgwick Museum, has found the cause.

Research in Lockdown: Fieldwork Disrupted

By Nick Barber from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on May 26, 2020.

My PhD concerns a longstanding question—how do valuable metals move through volcanic systems? Since starting my PhD in September 2018, I’ve been looking forward to testing my hypotheses on this topic in the field, on a six-week expedition called the Metals in Magmas field campaign. Like many Earth scientists, I spent months planning the project’s …

WACSWAIN: Sherman Island Drilling—Part Three

By Isobel Rowell from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on May 06, 2020.

In the final instalment of this WACSWAIN fieldwork diary, Isobel Rowell describes the heartbreak of ending her fieldwork earlier than planned, as drilling takes a dramatic turn. In case you missed them, Part One and Part Two are available on the blog. The Bad Day The weather eased a little over the next couple of …

The Royal Society announces election of new Fellows 2020

By jg533 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Apr 29, 2020.

Fellows are chosen for their outstanding contributions to scientific understanding. The 62 newly elected Fellows embody the global nature of science, and are elected for life through a peer review process based on excellence in science. Past Fellows and Foreign Members include Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Dorothy Hodgkin and Stephen Hawking.

The Royal Society is a self-governing Fellowship made up of the most eminent scientists, engineers and technologists from the UK and the Commonwealth. Its Foreign Members are drawn from the rest of the world. The Society’s fundamental purpose is to recognise, promote and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.

Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, President of the Royal Society, said: “At this time of global crisis, the importance of scientific thinking, and the medicines, technologies and insights it delivers, has never been clearer. Our Fellows and Foreign Members are central to the mission of the Royal Society, to use science for the benefit of humanity.

"While election to the Fellowship is a recognition of exceptional individual contributions to the sciences, it is also a network of expertise that can be drawn on to address issues of societal, and global significance. This year’s Fellows and Foreign Members have helped shape the 21st century through their work at the cutting-edge of fields from human genomics, to climate science and machine learning. 

"It gives me great pleasure to celebrate these achievements, and those yet to come, and welcome them into the ranks of the Royal Society.”

 

The Cambridge scientists announced today as Royal Society Fellows are:

Professor Kevin Brindle FMedSci, Department of Biochemistry and Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute. His current research is focused on novel imaging methods for detecting cancer progression and to monitor early tumour responses to treatment, with an emphasis on translating these techniques to the clinic.

Professor Vikram Deshpande, Department of Engineering, for his seminal contributions in microstructural mechanics. His works include developing ‘metallic wood’, sheets of nickel as strong as titanium, but four-times lighter thanks to their plant-like nanoscale pores.

Professor Marian Holness, Department of Earth Sciences. She has created a new approach to decoding rock history, and concentrates on understanding the evolution of bodies of magma trapped in the crust, which ultimately controls the eruptive behaviour of any overlying volcano. 

Professor Giles Oldroyd, Russell R Geiger Professor of Crop Science, Crop Science Centre and Group Leader, Sainsbury Laboratory. He is leading an international research programme attempting to achieve more equitable and sustainable agriculture through the enhanced use of beneficial microbial associations.  

Professor Hugh Osborn, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics for work in theoretical physics on quantum field theory and in particular conformal field theory. 

Professor Didier Queloz, Cavendish Laboratory, for his part in the discovery of the first planet beyond our solar system, for which he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics last year. Hundreds more exoplanets have since been revealed by his pioneering observational techniques.

Dr Sarah Teichmann FMedSci, Director of Research, Cavendish Laboratory and Senior Research Fellow, Churchill College, for her contributions to computational biology and genomics, including her role in founding and leading the Human Cell Atlas international consortium to map all cell types in the human body.

Professor Stephen Young, Department of Engineering, for pioneering the statistical approach to language processing - namely, treating conversation as a reinforcement learning problem - that made the speech-recognition products in millions of homes a reality.

Professor Jack Thorne, Department of Pure Maths and Mathematical Statistics for multiple breakthroughs in diverse areas of algebraic number theory. At age 32, he becomes the youngest living member of the Fellowship.

In addition, Dr William Schafer at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology, based at the Cambridge Biomedical Campus, has been elected as a Fellow.

 

 

Nine Cambridge scientists are among the new Fellows announced today by the Royal Society. 

At this time of global crisis, the importance of scientific thinking, and the medicines, technologies and insights it delivers, has never been clearer.
Venki Ramakrishnan

Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes
License type: 

Coronavirus pandemic: making safer emergency hospitals

By lw355 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Apr 28, 2020.

Shorthand Story: 
4gMg6JDOJi
Shorthand Story Head: 
Coronavirus pandemic: making safer emergency hospitals
Shorthand Story Body: 

Coronavirus pandemic

Making safer emergency hospitals

Simple, low-cost ventilation designs and configuration of wards can reduce the dispersal of airborne virus in emergency COVID-19 hospitals, say Cambridge researchers.

Video report available with subtitles in English, Chinese, French, German, Polish, Spanish, Vietnamese and Hindi.

Video report available with subtitles in English, Chinese, French, German, Polish, Spanish, Vietnamese and Hindi.

The coronavirus pandemic is stressing bed space capacity in hospitals globally. Healthcare authorities are attempting to add thousands of additional bed spaces by temporarily adapting any available large open halls.

However, large air-conditioned halls tend to have top-down air-conditioning, which creates turbulent flows that can mix and spread droplets containing the virus very widely. At six changes of the air in the occupied part of the hall in an hour, it may take over 20 minutes to dilute the concentration of smaller droplets produced in a cough to below a tenth of their original density.

This, say the researchers, is plenty of time for droplets to travel beyond 20m, putting healthcare professionals in particular at risk as they move about through “a slowly refreshing miasma”.

Professor Andrew Woods FRS of Cambridge’s BP Institute (BPI) and Professor Alan Short of the Department of Architecture have developed a series of practical solutions to reduce the concentration of airborne virus experienced by patients and healthcare workers in buildings converted into makeshift wards.

The designs, released today in a video report, involve relatively low-tech adaptations to ventilation systems and ward configuration, and are relevant for use in the UK and overseas.

“Effective ventilation is critically important in helping to suppress cross-infection, and nowhere more so than in an infectious diseases ward,” says Short.

“Patients coughing or being ventilated will project droplets, some containing the virus, as an aerosol. They are so small that they may take tens of minutes to fall to the floor as the droplet evaporates in still air.”

“Governments, healthcare decision-makers and construction workers are facing an extreme challenge in the urgent need to construct emergency hospitals,” says Woods, Director of the interdisciplinary BPI.

“Our work aims to highlight simple yet effective solutions that are relatively easy to install, implement, service and maintain.”
Professor Andy Woods

The team’s recommendations are based on physical laboratory experiments to test ventilation systems for two basic arrangements of beds: what is becoming a standard approach of placing hundreds of beds in an open hall with low level partitions, compared with arranging beds within enclosed patient bays so that, as far as possible, the exhaust air does not permeate the rest of the hall.

In the completely open version, ventilation air (yellow in the image below) moves down to the ground and spreads out over the patient beds, leading to a highly mixed environment. When a patient coughs (red) or releases aerosols, the flow pattern of the aerosols can extend across the space to other patient beds, even to patients across the corridor.

In the version subdivided into patient bays, the ventilation flow (green) still comes down from the ceiling and moves into the patient bed-spaces and mixes, but a good proportion of this air is removed through exhaust ducts located behind the beds. When a patient produces aerosols within a bay (orange), the aerosol concentration remains high in the bay and as air is drawn out through the exhaust duct this limits the aerosol transport into the main space.

“In a large hall, airflows mix up the airborne aerosols all too efficiently and disperse them through the space across patients and perhaps more significantly nurses and healthcare workers,” explains Woods. “A small measure, such as the installation of part-enclosed patient bays with exhaust ducts can help reduce this dispersion.”

“The strategies will work in many different climates.”
Professor Alan Short

“We’ve developed viable low energy ventilation models for converted spaces in many other climate regions from Temperate Northwest to the Mediterranean, from Continental climates in China and central India to the Mid-West of North America, Canada and marine coastal climates globally,” adds Short.

In particular, the Cambridge team is working with Professor L.S. Shashidhara, Dean of Research at Ashoka University, and advisor to the Indian government and architect C.S. Raghuram, to create viable conversions of marriage halls and sheds as emergency COVID-19 hospitals in India.

“Crucially, the measures we suggest are simple to implement as part of a rapid interior remodelling plan,” says Short. “Our research shows that a small number of straightforward modifications would reduce risk in what is already a very risky environment.”

How you can support Cambridge’s COVID-19 research

Because of the urgent need to share information relating to the pandemic, the researchers have released their preliminary report now, ahead of submitting to a peer-review journal. However, the designs are based on decades of research by Woods and Short on how particles like viruses are transported in mechanically ventilated spaces. Two key publications:

Mingotti, N. and Woods, A.W. (2015) On the transport of heavy particles through an upward displacement-ventilated space. J. Fluid Mechanics 772: 478-507
Short, C.A. (2017) The Recovery of Natural Environments in Architecture: Air, Comfort and Climate, Routledge, Abingdon, UK [ISBN 978 1 138 65146 3]

 The research was carried out in collaboration with colleagues at the University of Cambridge's Interdisciplinary Research Centre in Infectious Diseases

Water tank experiments were with the assistance of Will Woods and Nicola Mingotti, in tanks made by Andrew Pluck.

With thanks to Monika Koeck (CineTecture Ltd) for other images and film.

Digital Research and Visualisation Partners: CAVA | Centre for Architecture and the Visual Arts, University of Liverpool and CineTecture Ltd | Moving Image Productions

Summary: 

Simple, low-cost ventilation designs and configuration of wards can reduce the dispersal of airborne virus in emergency COVID-19 hospitals, say Cambridge researchers.

Image: 
People (our academics and staff): 
Subject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): 
Section: 
News type: 

WACSWAIN: Sherman Island Drilling—Part Two

By Isobel Rowell from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Apr 27, 2020.

In part two of her three-part series, Isobel Rowell describes her daily routine as part of the WACSWAIN team, drilling into the Antarctic ice sheet and sampling ice chippings from the borehole in search of ice from the last interglacial. In case you missed it, Part One is available on the blog. The Sherman Island …

WACSWAIN: Sherman Island Drilling—Part One

By Isobel Rowell from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Apr 14, 2020.

In a three-part series of blog posts, Isobel Rowell describes her experiences on the second field campaign of the WACSWAIN project. Part one outlines the motives behind the Sherman Island drilling project, and details the team’s journey to their drill site. Introduction The Sherman Island Drilling Project is the second of two field campaigns under …

Origins of Earth's magnetic field remain a mystery

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Apr 08, 2020.

Zircons, and their microscopic mineral inclusions, from an ancient outcrop of Jack Hills, Western Australia, have been at the centre of an intense geological debate: When did the Earth first create a magnetic field? Previous studies have suggested that these minerals record traces of Earth’s magnetic field dated as far back as 4.2 billion years ago (Ga). However, an international team led by MIT, and including Professor Richard Harrison (Dept of Earth Sciences, University of Cambridge), has now found evidence to the contrary.

Imaging of North-Sulawesi subduction in the Celebes Sea

By ChuanChuan Lü from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Mar 30, 2020.

How does subduction start? The answer to this question remains enigmatic and controversial. The process of subduction, which drives global plate tectonics and helps to shape the Earth as we know it, began as early as 4.1 Ga, but how the first subduction zone initiated remains unknown. Some have argued that the plate tectonic cycle …

‘Wonderchicken’ fossil from the age of dinosaurs reveals origin of modern birds

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Mar 18, 2020.

Shorthand Story: 
8juYd26tlB
Shorthand Story Head: 
‘Wonderchicken’ fossil from the age of dinosaurs reveals origin of modern birds
Shorthand Story Body: 

‘Wonderchicken’ fossil from the age of dinosaurs reveals origin of modern birds

The oldest fossil of a modern bird yet found, dating from the age of dinosaurs, has been identified by an international team of palaeontologists.

The spectacular fossil, affectionately nicknamed the ‘Wonderchicken’, includes a nearly complete skull, hidden inside nondescript pieces of rock, and dates from less than one million years before the asteroid impact which eliminated all large dinosaurs.

Writing in the journal Nature, the team, led by the University of Cambridge, believe the new fossil helps clarify why birds survived the mass extinction event at the end of the Cretaceous period, while the giant dinosaurs did not.

Detailed analysis of the skull shows that it combines many features common to modern chicken- and duck-like birds, suggesting that the ‘Wonderchicken’ is close to the last common ancestor of modern chickens and ducks. The fossil was found in a limestone quarry near the Belgian-Dutch border, making it the first modern bird from the age of dinosaurs found in the northern hemisphere.

The fossil doesn’t look like much on first glance, with only a few small leg bone fragments poking out from a piece of rock the size of a deck of cards. Even those small bones attracted the researchers’ interest, since bird fossils from this point in Earth’s history are so rare.

Rock containing the Wonderchicken skull. Credit: Daniel J Field

Rock containing the Wonderchicken skull. Credit: Daniel J Field

Rock containing the Wonderchicken skull. Credit: Daniel J Field

Using high-resolution X-ray CT scans, the researchers peered through the rock to see what was lying beneath the surface. What they saw, just one millimetre beneath the rock, was the find of a lifetime: a nearly complete 66.7-million-year-old bird skull.

“The moment I first saw what was beneath the rock was the most exciting moment of my scientific career,” said Dr Daniel Field from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences, who led the research. “This is one of the best-preserved fossil bird skulls of any age, from anywhere in the world. We almost had to pinch ourselves when we saw it, knowing that it was from such an important time in Earth’s history.

“The ability to CT scan fossils, like we can at the Cambridge Biotomography Centre, has completely transformed how we study palaeontology in the 21st century.”

Video illustrating position of the fossil skull of the Wonderchicken, Asteriornis maastrichtensis, beneath the femur. Credit: Daniel J Field

Video illustrating position of the fossil skull of the Wonderchicken, Asteriornis maastrichtensis, beneath the femur. Credit: Daniel J Field

“Finding the skull blew my mind,” said co-author Juan Benito, also from Cambridge, who was CT scanning the fossils with Field when the skull was discovered. “Without these cutting-edge scans, we never would have known that we were holding the oldest modern bird skull in the world.”

The skull, despite its age, is clearly recognisable as a modern bird. It combines many features common to the group that includes living chickens and ducks - a group called Galloanserae. Field describes the skull as a kind of ‘mash-up’ of a chicken and a duck.

Examples of modern chicken-like birds

Examples of modern chicken-like birds. Credit: Daniel J. Field

Examples of modern chicken-like birds. Credit: Daniel J. Field

“The origins of living bird diversity are shrouded in mystery — other than knowing that modern birds arose at some point towards the end of the age of dinosaurs, we have very little fossil evidence of them until after the asteroid hit,” said co-author Albert Chen, a PhD student based at Cambridge. “This fossil provides our earliest direct glimpse of what modern birds were like during the initial stages of their evolutionary history.”

While the fossil is colloquially known as the Wonderchicken, the researchers have given it the slightly more elegant name of Asteriornis, in reference to Asteria, the Greek Titan goddess of falling stars.

“We thought it was an appropriate name for a creature that lived just before the end-Cretaceous asteroid impact,” said co-author Dr Daniel Ksepka from the Bruce Museum in Greenwich, Connecticut. “In Greek mythology, Asteria transforms herself into a quail, and we believe Asteriornis was close to the common ancestor that today includes quails, as well as chickens and ducks.”

Artist's impression of the Wonderchicken.

Artist's impression of the Wonderchicken. Credit: Philip Krzeminski

Artist's impression of the Wonderchicken. Credit: Philip Krzeminski

The fact that Asteriornis was found in Europe is another thing which makes it so extraordinary. “The late Cretaceous fossil record of birds from Europe is extremely sparse,” said co-author Dr John Jagt from the Natuurhistorische Museum Maastricht in the Netherlands. “The discovery of Asteriornis provides some of the first evidence that Europe was a key area in the early evolutionary history of modern birds.”

“This fossil tells us that early on, at least some modern birds were fairly small-bodied, ground-dwelling birds that lived near the seashore,” said Field. “Asteriornis now gives us a search image for future fossil discoveries — hopefully it ushers in a new era of fossil finds that help clarify how, when and where modern birds first evolved.”

Dr Daniel Field holding a replica version of the 'Wonderchicken' skull

Dr Daniel Field holding a replica version of the 'Wonderchicken' skull

Dr Daniel Field holding a replica version of the 'Wonderchicken' skull

Dr Daniel Field is funded by a UKRI Future Leaders Fellowship. He is a University Lecturer in the Department of Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and a Fellow of Christ’s College Cambridge.

Reference:
Daniel J. Field et al.
Late Cretaceous neornithine from Europe illuminates the origins of crown birds.’ Nature (2020). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-020-2096-0

Summary: 

The oldest fossil of a modern bird yet found, dating from the age of dinosaurs, has been identified by an international team of palaeontologists.

Image: 
External Affiliations: 
People (our academics and staff): 
Subject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): 
Section: 

Half billion-year-old 'social network' observed in early animals

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Mar 05, 2020.

Shorthand Story: 
SVCo8ZPOAX
Shorthand Story Head: 
Half billion-year-old 'social network' observed in early animals
Shorthand Story Body: 

Half billion-year-old ‘social network’ observed in early animals

Rangeomorph fossils connected by threads

Some of the first animals on Earth were connected by networks of thread-like filaments, the earliest evidence yet found of life being connected in this way.

Scientists from the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford discovered the fossilised threads – some as long as four metres – connecting organisms known as rangeomorphs, which dominated Earth’s oceans half a billion years ago. 

The team found these filament networks – which may have been used for nutrition, communication or reproduction –in seven species across nearly 40 different fossil sites in Newfoundland, Canada. Their results are reported in the journal Current Biology.

Artist's impression of rangeomorphs

Towards the end of the Ediacaran period, between 571 and 541 million years ago, the first diverse communities of large and complex organisms began to appear: prior to this, almost all life on Earth had been microscopic in size.

Fern-like rangeomorphs were some of the most successful life forms during this period, growing up to two metres in height and colonising large areas of the sea floor. Rangeomorphs may have been some of the first animals to exist, although their strange anatomies have puzzled palaeontologists for years; these organisms do not appear to have had mouths, organs or means of moving. One suggestion is that they absorbed nutrients from the water around them.

Since rangeomorphs could not move and are preserved where they lived, it is possible to analyse whole populations from the fossil record. Earlier studies of rangeomorphs have looked at how these organisms managed to reproduce and be so successful in their time. 

“These organisms seem to have been able to quickly colonise the sea floor, and we often see one dominant species on these fossil beds,” said Dr Alex Liu from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences, and the paper’s first author. “How this happens ecologically has been a longstanding question – these filaments may explain how they were able to do that.”

Most of the filaments were between two and 40 centimetres in length, although some were as long as four metres. Since they are so thin however, the filaments are only visible in places where the fossil preservation is exceptionally good, which is one of the reasons they were not identified sooner. The fossils for this study were found on five sites in eastern Newfoundland, one of the world’s richest sources of Ediacaran fossils.

It’s possible that the filaments were used as a form of clonal reproduction, like modern strawberries, but since the organisms in the network were the same size, the filaments may have had other functions. For example, the filaments may have provided stability against strong ocean currents. Another possibility is that they enabled organisms to share nutrients, a prehistoric version of the ‘wood wide web’ observed in modern-day trees. What is known however, is that some reconsideration of how Ediacaran organisms lived may be in order. 

Field work in Newfoundland

“We’ve always looked at these organisms as individuals, but we’ve now found that several individual members of the same species can be linked by these filaments, like a real-life social network,” said Liu. “We may now need to reassess earlier studies into how these organisms interacted, and particularly how they competed for space and resources on the ocean floor. The most unexpected thing for me is the realisation that these things are connected. I’ve been looking at them for over a decade, and this has been a real surprise.” 

“It’s incredible the level of detail that can be preserved on these ancient sea floors; some of these filaments are only a tenth of a millimetre wide,” said co-author Dr Frankie Dunn from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. “Just like if you went down the beach today, with these fossils, it’s a case of the more you look, the more you see.”

The research was funded in part by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and National Geographic.

Reference:
Alexander G. Liu and Frances S. Dunn. ‘
Filamentous connections between Ediacaran fronds.’ Current Biology (2020). DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2020.01.052

All images by Alex Liu, except for illustration by Charlotte Kenchington.

Summary: 

Some of the first animals on Earth were connected by networks of thread-like filaments, the earliest evidence yet found of life being connected in this way.

Image: 
People (our academics and staff): 
Subject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): 
Section: 
News type: 

Deep Earth Explorers

By Jess Bartlet from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Feb 24, 2020.

In this blog post, Jess Bartlet answers questions about her experiences as a Public Engagement Coordinator within Dr Sanne Cottaar’s deep Earth research group. Together, they seek to unravel and expose the mysteries of the Earth, thousands of kilometres beneath our feet. Working with the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, Jess is developing a series …

Taking a dinosaur's temperature

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Feb 14, 2020.

New chemical analyses of dinosaur eggshell by Dr Robin Dawson (Yale University), Dr Daniel Field (University of Cambridge), and colleagues from the US, Canada and Israel, show that representatives of all three major dinosaur groups were endothermic (i.e., warm-blooded). As such, thermal-regulation is likely to have been the ancestral condition for dinosaurs, and helps explain their remarkably successful occupation of Earth’s Mesozoic landscapes from pole to pole.

WACSWAIN: the hard slog of analysis

By Eric Wolff from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Feb 05, 2020.

The last time I blogged about WACSWAIN was in January 2019, when we were in the euphoria of having drilled to the bedrock at Skytrain Ice Rise, and retrieved 651 metres of ice.  So what have we been doing since then? Well, firstly the ice had to travel safely (i.e., cold) to Cambridge. Our 130 …

Sand dunes can ‘communicate’ with each other

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Feb 04, 2020.

Sand dune

Using an experimental dune ‘racetrack’, the researchers observed that two identical dunes start out close together, but over time they get further and further apart. This interaction is controlled by turbulent swirls from the upstream dune, which push the downstream dune away. The results, reported in the journal Physical Review Letters, are key for the study of long-term dune migration, which threatens shipping channels, increases desertification, and can bury infrastructure such as highways.

When a pile of sand is exposed to wind or water flow, it forms a dune shape and starts moving downstream with the flow. Sand dunes, whether in deserts, on river bottoms or sea beds, rarely occur in isolation and instead usually appear in large groups, forming striking patterns known as dune fields or corridors.

It’s well-known that active sand dunes migrate. Generally speaking, the speed of a dune is inverse to its size: smaller dunes move faster and larger dunes move slower. What hasn’t been understood is if and how dunes within a field interact with each other.

“There are different theories on dune interaction: one is that dunes of different sizes will collide, and keep colliding, until they form one giant dune, although this phenomenon has not yet been observed in nature,” said Karol Bacik, a PhD candidate in Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, and the paper’s first author. “Another theory is that dunes might collide and exchange mass - sort of like billiard balls bouncing off one another - until they are the same size and move at the same speed, but we need to validate these theories experimentally.”

Now, Bacik and his Cambridge colleagues have shown results that question these explanations. “We’ve discovered physics that hasn’t been part of the model before,” said Dr Nathalie Vriend, who led the research.

Most of the work in modelling the behaviour of sand dunes is done numerically, but Vriend and the members of her lab designed and constructed a unique experimental facility which enables them to observe their long-term behaviour. Water-filled flumes are common tools for studying the movement of sand dunes in a lab setting, but the dunes can only be observed until they reach the end of the tank. Instead, the Cambridge researchers have built a circular flume so that the dunes can be observed for hours as the flume rotates, while high-speed cameras allow them to track the flow of individual particles in the dunes.

Bacik hadn’t originally meant to study the interaction between two dunes: “Originally, I put multiple dunes in the tank just to speed up data collection, but we didn’t expect to see how they started to interact with each other,” he said.

The two dunes started with the same volume and in the same shape. As the flow began to move across the two dunes, they started moving. “Since we know that the speed of a dune is related to its height, we expected that the two dunes would move at the same speed,” said Vriend, who is based at the BP Institute for Multiphase Flow. “However, this is not what we observed.”

Initially, the front dune moved faster than the back dune, but as the experiment continued, the front dune began to slow down, until the two dunes were moving at almost the same speed.

Crucially, the pattern of flow across the two dunes was observed to be different: the flow is deflected by the front dune, generating ‘swirls’ on the back dune and pushing it away. “The front dune generates the turbulence pattern which we see on the back dune,” said Vriend. “The flow structure behind the front dune is like a wake behind a boat, and affects the properties of the next dune.”

As the experiment continued, the dunes got further and further apart, until they form an equilibrium on opposite sides of the circular flume, remaining 180 degrees apart.

The next step for the research is to find quantitative evidence of large-scale and complex dune migration in deserts, using observations and satellite images. By tracking clusters of dunes over long periods, we can observe whether measures to divert the migration of dunes are effective or not.

Reference:
Karol A. Bacik et al. ‘Wake-induced long range repulsion of aqueous dunes.’ Physical Review Letters (2020). DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.124.054501

Even though they are inanimate objects, sand dunes can ‘communicate’ with each other, researchers have found. A team from the University of Cambridge has found that as they move, sand dunes interact with and repel their downstream neighbours.

We’ve discovered physics that hasn’t been part of the model before
Nathalie Vriend
Sand dune

Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

'All the world's a stage'

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Feb 03, 2020.

According to Cambridge geologist Neil S. Davies and colleagues, Shakespeare was on the right track—again. Earth’s surface is indeed the stage upon which life has strutted its stuff, and has done so for the last 3.8 billion years. Billions of organisms have graced this stage, making their entrances and exits, but what was the impact of these ‘actors’? The answer has been locked up in Earth’s sedimentary record until now.

A top avian predator’s surprising past

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jan 20, 2020.

A single fossil bone found in Japan is ruffling a few feathers in the world of avian palaeontology. It belongs to a relative of the little auk or dovekie, today the most common seabird and top avian predator in the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans. At around 700,000 years old, the fossil’s presence in Japan indicates that during the ‘Ice Age’, the little auk had a much wider range that extended into the Pacific. Discovered by Junya Watanabe of the Department of Earth Sciences in the University of Cambridge and colleagues from Japan’s Kyoto University, the find raises the question of why such a successful, competitive and adaptive seabird should have suffered such a significant reduction in range.

Arts Council England funding announced for the Sedgwick Museum

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Dec 18, 2019.

Arts Council England has announced that the Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences is among 28 organisations to be awarded Designation Development Funding. A total of £2.1 million has been awarded across the country, drawn from the National Lottery, with the Sedgwick Museum receiving £89,406

Above and beyond: measuring volcanic emissions with drones

By lw355 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Dec 06, 2019.

Shorthand Story: 
4dLpLL9CiP
Shorthand Story Head: 
Above and beyond
Shorthand Story Body: 

Above and beyond

Dr Emma Liu travels to some of the world's most active volcanoes to understand what makes them erupt. Her latest work is helping a Pacific community to monitor the restless mountain they live with.

Standing on the rim of the volcano with her colleague and a local guide, Emma listened to the low roar of the crater's belly and watched as it spewed incendiary gobbets of lava.

A moment later, they launched their 'eye in the sky', a drone that can fly high above the volcano to collect gas chemistry data from directly inside the plume.

Aeroengineer Dr Kieran Wood, from Bristol University, launches a drone in Papua New Guinea as part of the ABOVE project

Aeroengineer Dr Kieran Wood, from Bristol University, launches a drone in Papua New Guinea as part of the ABOVE project

"Volcanoes are always going to erupt and so remote gas sensing – 'breathalysing' them, if you like – to assess hazard is an important defence to build resilience in communities that live nearby," explains Emma, from Cambridge University's Department of Earth Sciences.

Worldwide, around half a billion people live in areas at risk from volcanic eruptions. Even a volcano a thousand miles away can bring chaos and disruption to many, as Iceland's Eyjafjallajökull taught us in 2010. Yet we still have much to learn about what makes volcanoes erupt and whether we can predict when.

Drones offer an invaluable contribution to monitoring by making observations closer to volcanoes than ever before, irrespective of hazardous or inaccessible locations. In fact, some of the research team's flights are from a distance of 8 km away and to a height of 3 km.

"There are satellites that monitor volcanoes for gas release, but there's a lot of uncertainty and errors involved in that because you’re looking from so far away at something quite small," Emma explains. "Drones are providing a real intermediary between direct sampling and remote measurements in that we can get these close-to-vent measurements but from a safe distance."

As well as providing access to the inaccessible, drones are also changing how the researchers monitor changes in the behaviour of a volcano.

"We now design sophisticated aerial experiments to test specific hypotheses, like how the chemical reactions that are happening in the volcanic plume mature as they move down wind and what this means in terms of forecasting," she adds.

Their drone carries lightweight sensors to measure gases, particulates, temperature and humidity, as well as cameras to take visual and thermal images of eruptions in real time.

Previous work in Guatemala


"Right from the beginning this project was all about jumping us into the next decade of deep carbon science."

Emma's recent work has been in Manam, Papua New Guinea, where she leads the Aerial-Based Observations of Volcanic Emissions (ABOVE) programme, funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation as part of the Deep Carbon Observatory . Five major explosions have occurred here in the past year. In 2004, the whole island was evacuated, and islanders only started to return five years ago.

"We chose Papua New Guinea for many reasons," she explains. "We looked at our global dataset of carbon emissions around the world and identified gaps. Papua New Guinea really stood out because it has some of the most strongly degassing volcanoes as measured from satellites in space and yet almost entirely lacks ground-based measurements.

"Also, permanent relocation is seen as unacceptable to the islanders because the island is essential to their way of life. Instead they want to help themselves to live alongside the volcanic hazard."

ABOVE is the first time a global collaborative effort of scientists, aerospace engineers and pilots has been assembled to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of what makes volcanoes erupt.

In May 2019, the team of researchers undertook an ambitious field deployment to Manam, and also Tavurvur (Rabaul), in Papua New Guinea. They brought with them fixed-wing and rotary drones fitted with tiny sensors and cameras to collect data from the volcanoes. Each group had a slightly different focus on what, where and how they sampled the volcanic flux.

One drone, for instance, measured carbon dioxide levels as it flew through the plume, feeding the information in real time back to the drone operator. When the gas level was high enough, the operator would trigger a pump to take a sample for analysis back on ground level, where the ratios of carbon dioxide and sulphur dioxide could be used to forecast volcanic unrest.

"Right from the beginning this project was all about jumping us into the next decade of deep carbon science," explains Emma.

"We collected data for the first time at a volcano where it’s never been monitored before, we achieved engineering feats that a year ago we wouldn’t have even entertained as an idea, and we can now start to fill in some of the gaps in our understanding of the signature ‘breath’ of a volcano and the critical role of volcanoes in the deep Earth carbon cycle."

Working with members of the Manam Volcanic Disaster Response Committee, Emma saw an opportunity to help a community-led resilience programme.

"Meeting the islanders was quite sobering – it helped us to understand the deeper social context of what an evacuation really means for the people involved," says Emma.

"The generosity of the local tribe was unimaginable – we would leave equipment outside as permanent monitoring stations and within a few minutes the local people had constructed shelters above of wood, bamboo and woven leaves. None of this project would have been possible without them."

One of the biggest successes, she adds, is the collaboration the team set up with the local volcano observatory to continue the measurements.

She and colleagues trained local scientists how to use the drones, funded through a Global Impact Acceleration Grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council Global Challenges Research Fund.

"The islanders have been relying on visual monitoring up till now," she says. "They can now fly them over the volcano to do the same gas monitoring as we were. And when there is an eruption, it will be useful to get something in the air to see what and who is most at risk."

One representative from each of the provinces in Papua New Guinea came to their training workshop and as a result has since successfully lobbied provincial governments for additional funding to help them build the resilience programme.

Meanwhile, Liu will continue to collect data from the volcanoes themselves. "Field-based studies are crucial – these aren’t processes we can recreate in the lab – and there’s a buzz about being there.

"When I’m at the crater rim, with a line of volcanoes stretching before me... at times like this, I feel a little bit superhuman."

Dr Emma Liu is a Leverhulme Research Fellow in the Cambridge Department of Earth Sciences as well as a Fellow of Lucy Cavendish College.

Photo credits: Emma Liu and Kieran Wood
Manam map credit: Modern Designers

Summary: 

Dr Emma Liu travels to some of the world's most active volcanoes to understand what makes them erupt. Her latest work is helping a Pacific community to monitor the restless mountain they live with.

Image: 
Affiliation (schools and institutions): 
External Affiliations: 
People (our academics and staff): 
Subject (including Spotlight on ... where applicable): 
Section: 
News type: 

Sifting through the sediment

By Issy Baker from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Dec 03, 2019.

While many of my friends spent their summer vacation swanning off to remote corners of the world for some well-deserved rest and relaxation, I decided that it would be fun to spend August doing some lab work in Cambridge—I was actually pleasantly surprised. I was working for Nick Butterfield on some lake sediments from Idaho, …

Women in STEM: Fiona Llewellyn-Beard

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Nov 28, 2019.

I study mud. To tell the truth, this is something that has interested me since about the age of three, when I enjoyed making mud pies at nursery school. I’m a bit more particular now though, and work specifically on the sediments and soils at the bottom of the ponds found in salt marshes. 

These ponds are super interesting. They’re full of life, ranging from crabs and worms to rare bacteria, and all of this life interacts with and affects the mud. I’m studying how the biology and chemistry interact, in particular looking at iron, sulfur and carbon cycling. This is really important, as salt marshes can sequester and store huge amounts of carbon, which would otherwise be in our atmosphere contributing to global warming. In order to look after our salt marshes and keep the carbon locked up in them we need to understand their biogeochemistry more fully, and that’s where my research comes in. 

Outside of my research, I enjoy anything to do with the mountains - climbing, walking, running, skiing - and am also a Scout Leader in Cambridge. I grew up in south Cambridgeshire, where I went to my local primary and secondary schools. I always loved science, and was encouraged by my teachers to apply to Cambridge to read Natural Sciences, which is where I’ve been ever since!

The great thing about Cambridge is the community. There are so many great scientists here, and even if they’re not quite working in my field, they’re always keen to talk science and introduce you to their numerous contacts and collaborators.

My PhD involves a lot of travel, and I’m generally doing something different every day. This could be computational modelling, writing, lab work or fieldwork, depending on what I’m working on. My work is very interdisciplinary, so it’s good that I can visit other places to discuss my science with other experts!

The days I enjoy the most are when I go out to take sediment cores from the marsh ponds. I built corers out of a plastic tube, which is about 60cm long, and to take sediment samples I push it into the mud, before sliding my arm down the side to the bottom and pulling it up. It’s incredibly messy, and I usually get very wet!  In winter it can be really cold getting into a muddy pond on a salt marsh, but it’s an incredibly beautiful place to work, so it makes up for it.

Nothing in the environment can be considered in isolation. Everything impacts on everything else, the biology, the chemistry, the hydrology, the climate; everything interacts. Realising this was an important moment, and it made me see that to understand my mud I needed to go and learn more, and not be afraid to say ‘I don’t know’, and find someone who does. My advice to others is to talk to as many people as possible, make lots of contacts, and always smile, even if things don’t look promising.

My research takes me to a number of different places. In Cambridge, I do a lot of reading and writing in the Department of Earth Sciences, but I often travel to the salt marshes at Norfolk to take samples, which I bring back to analyse in the labs. I also do quite a lot of work in the geochemical labs at the University of Leeds, where they have specialist equipment to look at the iron mineralogy of the sediments. I'm also working with the British Geological Society to look at carbon in the sediments, and have in the past worked at the University of York doing microbiology.

 

A bold response to the world’s greatest challenge
The University of Cambridge is building on its existing research and launching an ambitious new environment and climate change initiative. Cambridge Zero is not just about developing greener technologies. It will harness the full power of the University’s research and policy expertise, developing solutions that work for our lives, our society and our biosphere.

Read more about our research linked with Sustainable Earth in the University's research magazine; download a pdf; view on Issuu.

Fiona Llewellyn-Beard is a PhD candidate in the Department of Earth Sciences, where she studies salt marshes and how they store huge amounts of carbon. Here, she tells us about how a childhood love of mud pies led to her current research, her love of the outdoors, and how everything in the environment is interconnected. 

Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Women in STEM: Professor Marian Holness

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Oct 31, 2019.

I was educated at state schools in Southampton before coming to Cambridge, where I gained my BA and PhD. I spent six years as a Postdoc at the University of Edinburgh, and have been a University Teaching Officer at Cambridge for the last 22 years.

I am interested in processes that happen during the solidification of partially molten rock. It's these processes, happening in batches of magma trapped under volcanoes, that ultimately control the explosivity of volcanic eruptions. The roots of volcanoes can be accessed if their tops have been eroded away, so I look at ancient volcanic regions, mainly in East Greenland and Scotland, where the rocks at the surface were originally buried several kilometres deep, so I can see what went on in the crust at that time. My approach involves careful field observation, followed by microscopic analysis of grain sizes and shapes and the ways grains fit together, to decode the solidification history.

Last summer we spent six weeks in East Greenland, working on a 60 million-year-old body of igneous rock called the Skaergaard Intrusion. I've been working on this for 12 years now, but on this trip, we saw masses of really novel things and I made many important breakthroughs in understanding - that was pretty thrilling.

I guide my group in their science and help them write their papers. I sometimes have time for my own research, which involves optical microscopy (I have rather less time for this than I would like!). One of the great things about Cambridge is that it has an excellent museum collection of rocks I can dip into when chasing up particular hunches and ideas. Most years I supplement this museum-based work by going into the field to collect new observations and samples - this is usually in the summer, and involves being away for up to several months though the usual time is a couple of weeks.

A key moment that helped define the development of my career happened when I was waiting for an experiment to heat up during my time in Edinburgh: I was quietly knitting a sock, watching the temperature climb on the dial... and out of nowhere I suddenly had a brainwave that made sense of everything I had been working on for the previous year. I learned from this and now find that spending time knitting, running, breastfeeding(!) and other quiet activities is the best way to trigger insights into my research.

Professor Marian Holness leads a research group in the Department of Earth Sciences, and studies the processes which occur during the melting and solidification of rocks. Here, she tells us how time spent in quiet activities like running, knitting and even breastfeeding have helped to trigger new insights in her research. 

Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

A ‘wet’ Summer: Cambridge and Tenerife

By Nikki Sridhar from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Oct 08, 2019.

This summer I was lucky enough to complete an internship in Environmental Consultancy with Mott MacDonald followed by a Hydrology Field Training Programme run by GeoTenerife. As a geologist, it can be hard to see how an Earth Sciences degree can be directly used outside of academia or the traditional field of Oil and Gas: …

Women in STEM: Dr Helen Williams

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Oct 03, 2019.

My research has taken me all over the world. I have been lucky enough to work in remote places like Kohistan in northwest Pakistan, Tibet, Iceland and Greenland, collaborating with a wide spectrum of great people and experiencing many interesting cultures and places.

I use rocks as pieces of forensic evidence. They help me to understand how the chemistry of the Earth and other planets has evolved since their formation more than four billion years ago. I work on a range of problems, including trying to understand how the plate tectonic processes can help cycle elements like iron, carbon and sulfur between the Earth’s surface and deep interior. I am also trying to find evidence for the Earth’s earliest internal melting events in 3.7-billion-year-old rocks. My work involves analytical lab work and plasma mass spectrometry as well as sample collection and fieldwork. 

I’m an Earth Scientist with a very broad scientific background. I read Natural Sciences in Cambridge as an undergraduate and leaned towards the biological sciences initially. I took earth sciences to broaden my scientific horizons and found I loved it, so switched to this in my second year.  After my PhD, I held a series of postdoctoral research positions and fellowships in the UK and abroad. There are so many people in Cambridge who are enthusiastic and passionate about research and understanding the world around them, and I find this uplifting, motivating and intellectually stimulating. I feel this environment brings out the best in me.

I’ve always wanted to have a career where you have a sense of real discovery. I remember when I made my first major scientific discovery during my first postdoc position at ETH-Zurich. When I looked at the emerging data patterns, at first I didn’t believe what I was seeing, then I was so excited I felt almost physically sick. For me, these rare moments are worth the sacrifices (and there are many) that are needed for a career in academia. Another really exciting project involved carrying out experiments that simulated the conditions of the Earth’s lower mantle (about 720km below the Earth’s surface) and using isotope tracers to understand how reactions taking place in this part of the Earth could have governed the chemical evolution of the Earth’s surface, and made our planet habitable.

One of the best pieces of advice I was given was to turn every decision you make into the right one. If I were to offer any words of advice I would like them to be “don’t give up” -  but that is rather simplistic. Everyone feels like giving up at some point but, realistically, I think it’s a case of being proactive and making continued forward progress however tough you are finding things. It’s easy to get discouraged by situations or by comparing yourself to others. It’s also easy to find everything overwhelming - but a lot of small steps can take you where you want to be. I also feel it’s always important to ask advice and heed it, but ultimately you have to make your own decisions and stick with them. Occasionally you have to be prepared to take risks and sometimes you have to decide between difficult options. 

Dr Helen Williams is a Reader in Cambridge's Department of Earth Sciences and a Fellow of Jesus College. Here, she tells us about using rocks as pieces of forensic evidence, what it's like hundreds of kilometres below the Earth's surface, and why Cambridge brings out the best in her. 

Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

UKRI fellowship enables further research on the origins and evolution of birds

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Sep 20, 2019.

Announced today, Dr Field, University Lecturer in Evolutionary Palaeobiology, has been named a recipient of a Future Leaders Fellowship by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Dr Field is an expert on the origins and evolution of birds, and his award, entitled 'Modernisation, diversification, and domination: Macroevolutionary origins of living bird diversity', will fund his research for the next several years.

Mussels could 'tough out' climate change

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Aug 21, 2019.

Global environmental change is generally bad news for life on Earth. But the future may not be entirely doom and gloom. Cambridge biologist Luca Telesca and colleagues have conducted the first large-scale examination of natural variation in biomineralisation in ecologically and economically important Atlantic mussel species Mytilus edulis and M. trossulus within their natural habitats. Little is known about the processes, which allow species such as these to vary regionally. So the researchers tested the mussels ability to vary the production and composition of their calcareous shells which provides them with a resilience to the impacts of climate change in their shallow marine habitat.

Women in STEM: Fiona Iddon

By sc604 from University of Cambridge - Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Aug 15, 2019.

My sisters and I were the first in our family to go to university so I was very excited to get the chance to study Geological Sciences at Leeds. I’ve always had an interest in the natural world, I loved physical Geography at school and everything just clicked when I studied Geology for A level. It’s such a broad subject, there is always something new to learn and explore, and the fieldwork in amazing, even if the weather is slightly damp!

Volcanology is definitely the coolest bit of geology. Volcanoes are such powerful natural phenomena and there is so much we still don’t know about them. The more we understand about them the better we can be prepared for future eruptions, and we can also help people harness their energy through geothermal exploration.

My fieldwork on the Main Ethiopian Rift was incredibly exciting. I went there several times to collect rock samples and make field observations. It’s such an amazing country. The landscape is awe-inspiring, the food is interesting, and the people so warm and friendly.

There is a strong volcanology community here, despite the clear lack of volcanoes in Cambridgeshire! This has allowed me to learn from lots of different people, experts in their own fields. The knowledge pool here is so diverse, from analogue experiments to gas geochemistry and volcano seismology. The name also carries weight in the international community, increasing interest in my work at conferences and fostering collaborations. Day to day I’m usually at my desk, crunching numbers and stressing over spreadsheets. As a volcanic geochemist, it is really important to collect high-quality chemical data and find interesting patterns. My thesis aims to improve understanding of where magma chambers are and how they behave in continental rifts.

My area of research is a great field to be part of. The Main Ethiopian Rift is part of the larger East African Rift, which is causing the horn of Africa to split away from the rest of the continent. This type of volcanism has not received much research attention, and a lack of literature can be challenging but new discoveries are so exciting. There are well over 50 volcanoes in Ethiopia, some of which have erupted in dramatic fashion and formed vast calderas in the past, and with the second-fastest growing economy in the world, the number of people and infrastructure near to them will increase. I have integrated my work with geophysics to improve volcanic monitoring efforts in the region and aid in geothermal exploration, an increasingly important energy source for Ethiopia.

The best day I’ve had so far was when I learned how to install geophysical equipment in Ethiopia. I’m a complete novice when it comes to geophysics so it was great to learn from an expert. The equipment is used for measuring the electrical conductivity of the Earth. The measurements we carried out can indicate the presence of magma in the Earth and have produced intriguing results that, along with my geochemical knowledge, I’m helping to interpret. It took a whole team of scientists and local people all morning to dig the holes and bury the equipment; there was a real sense of teamwork, even with the language barriers!

I’ve developed a real passion for making science accessible. This was prompted by my experiences as the assistant editor of a history of science book produced by Cambridge University Press. It showed me that there are viable and exciting careers outside of academia, and I am due to start a career in publishing this fall.

A friendly collaborative attitude goes a long way.  So many female scientists I have encountered feel the need to be tough and uber-competitive to survive in what they perceive as a ‘man's world’.  Be kind and stay true to yourself.

 

Fiona Iddon is a PhD student in the Department of Earth Sciences, where she studies volcanoes. Here, she tells us about making science accessible, being the first in her family to go to university, and working at the place where the horn of Africa is splitting away from the rest of the continent. 

Fiona Iddon at Mount St. Helens

Creative Commons License
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

More Impressions from ‘not a geologist’ – the Part III Spain field trip 2018

By Sarah Humbert from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Jul 22, 2019.

The last field trip that our undergraduates take is the fourth year, Part III trip to Spain. Run in the break between Lent & Easter term the trip aims to gather all the aspects of the course and put them together as a cohesive whole. Other trips focus on specific research areas: e.g. Sedimentology and …

Professor Richard Harrison appointed Head of Department

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jul 18, 2019.

Richard Harrison (Fitzwilliam 1990), Professor of Earth and Planetary Materials and Fellow of St Catharine’s College, will take over as Head of Department on 1st August 2019.

Perched for take-off

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Apr 02, 2019.

Perching birds, ranging from sparrows, tits and jays to the South African White-bellied Sunbird, form the largest and most diverse group of living birds. With over 6,000 species belonging to 143 families, the passerines, as they are technically known, have had astonishing evolutionary and geographical success. Within the last 45 million years they have spread out around the world. Now, for the first time the evolutionary tree of all major groups of perching birds has been mapped out in a study involving Daniel Field of the Department of Earth Sciences in Cambridge and led by Carl Oliveros and Brant Faircloth of Louisiana State University.

Geological Society awards for Cambridge researchers

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Mar 04, 2019.

Congratulations to Professor Marian Holness, Dr Nigel Woodcock and Dr Brendan McCormick Kilbride who each received awards from the Geological Society of London. The awards were presented on President's Day on 6 June 2019.

Historic Quito-Galápagos Alumni trip

By Sally Gibson from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Feb 27, 2019.

The joint Cambridge-Oxford Universities Alumni trip to Historic Quito and Galápagos in September 2018 was the first time I’ve acted as a Trip Scholar. From the outset, I was intrigued as to who would be in the group and how the dynamics would work. I could not have been more pleased with the way things …

Magnetic properties of meteorite ‘cloudy zones’ revealed

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Feb 12, 2019.

A team led by Cambridge Earth Sciences' Joshua Einsle and Richard Harrison have used advanced microscopy techniques and numerical simulations to gain new insight into the formation, composition and magnetic behaviour of the meteoritic composite known as the ‘cloudy zone’.

Tales from Bear Island: a month of Arctic fieldwork (or, four weeks without a phone)

By Sean Herron from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Feb 05, 2019.

In August 2018 I was lucky enough to join a CASP expedition to Bear Island, in the Norwegian High Arctic, as a field assistant and as part of my Part III project. My journey to the arctic began as so many do, in Heathrow airport. We unloaded the minivan-sized taxi required to get all our …

Interning at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences

By Anna Prescott from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Jan 31, 2019.

Over the summer, I was fortunate enough to complete a research internship at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences (BIOS), known by locals as the ‘Biological Station’. I was therefore off to a tiny island in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean for two months to research the effects of climate change and swim with …

Research shows what it takes to be a giant shark

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jan 24, 2019.

Have you ever wondered why the Megalodon shark became to be so big? Or wondered why some other sharks are much smaller?

Cambridge team reach bedrock to complete Antarctic ice core

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jan 09, 2019.

WACSWAIN Drill Log: ice core complete!

By Eric Wolff from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Jan 08, 2019.

The aim of our fieldwork in Antarctica is to retrieve an ice core reaching through the entire depth of the ice cap on Skytrain Ice Rise, to obtain ice extending at least 130,000 years back in time. Last night, on Tuesday 7 January, we succeeded. The feeling of elation is all around me, with all …

WACSWAIN Drill Log: Christmas in Antarctica

By Eric Wolff from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Dec 31, 2018.

We’ve now been at Skytrain Ice Rise in Antarctica for about 6 weeks. In previous blogs, I have written about the life in camp and the drilling. Now, just after Christmas, it’s time to take stock of what we have achieved, and what we are aiming to do. The target is to drill an ice …

WACSWAIN Drill Log: ice core drilling begins

By Eric Wolff from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Dec 10, 2018.

In order to achieve our goal of retrieving ice that is 130,000 years old, we need to drill a core to the bottom of the ice cap we’re camping on, through about 620 m of ice. All the work so far has been preparation for drilling, so what does the drilling actually involve? The end …

Liz Hide appointed as first full-time Director of the Sedgwick Museum

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Nov 28, 2018.

The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences, the oldest of the University of Cambridge museums, has appointed its first full-time director.

WACSWAIN Drill Log: making camp in the Antarctic

By Eric Wolff from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Nov 26, 2018.

In my last blog I wrote about all the expertise needed to get us into the field. Well finally eight of us, including me, have reached Skytrain Ice Rise, and are experiencing all the steps needed before we can drill an ice core. Field leader Robert and field guide Caspar were the first to arrive, …

W.B.R. King – the Cambridge geologist who went to war

By Douglas Palmer from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Nov 11, 2018.

William Bernard Robinson King was awarded the Military Cross for bravery with the British Expeditionary Force before being evacuated from Dunkirk in 1940. He was a Cambridge graduate and World War I veteran who pioneered the use of geological expertise in the theatre of war. King went on to become the 11th Woodwardian Professor of …

WACSWAIN Drill Log: preparing for fieldwork

By Eric Wolff from Cambridge Earth Sciences blog. Published on Nov 08, 2018.

Most of us assume that the key skills for our research are academic ones. But preparing for our field season in Antarctica for the WACSWAIN project, it’s obvious just how many other skills and attributes are needed, and how we rely on our non-academic support staff. Nine of us are now waiting at Rothera research …

Taking to the skies: measuring volcanic gas emissions using drones

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Oct 17, 2018.

Many of the world’s most hazardous volcanoes are either too remote or too active to make measurements safely from the ground. Cambridge Earth Scientists are now taking to the skies to investigate the gases being released by these elusive volcanoes.

Metals mark magma for life

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Sep 03, 2018.

Gases erupted by volcanoes contain various volatile metal products. New research by Marie Edmonds and Emma Liu in Cambridge and Tamsin Mather in Oxford has discovered that different kinds of volcanoes have distinctive metal ‘signatures’, which reflect differences in how their magma forms.

Lessons about a future warmer world using data from the past

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jun 25, 2018.

Selected intervals in the past that were as warm or warmer than today can help us understand what the Earth may be like under future global warming. A latest assessment of past warm periods, by an international team of 59 scientists from 17 nations including Cambridge Earth Sciences' Professor Eric Wolff, shows that in response to the warming ecosystems and climate zones will spatially shift and on millennial time scales ice sheets will substantially shrink.

Dating the emplacement of the Shap granite using zircon

From Department of Earth Sciences. Published on Jun 07, 2018.

G5a - the distinctive coarse-grained, pink granite exposed at Shap in Cumbria - has long been a favourite igneous hand specimen for Earth Sciences teaching in Cambridge. New research uses the age of zircon crystal formation to suggest a long gestation period in the mid-crust before its final emplacement 405 million years ago.