UMass Amherst professor’s findings reveal how beaches from Long Island to Maine are shaped
Millions of Americans will visit New England’s beaches this summer to cool off, play in the waves and soak up the sun. Until now, the factors governing which beaches slope gradually to the sea and which ones end abruptly in a steep drop-off have been largely unknown. However, new research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst reveals, with unprecedented detail, how the grain size of beach sand relates to the slope of the beach itself. These new findings are critical to understanding how New England’s beaches will respond to both rising sea levels and increased storm activity.
Many of New England’s beaches are made up of a mixture of sand and small stones. Or, to be more precise, the grain sizes on these beaches are “bi-modal” – composed of very large pieces of gravel, from 10 to 64 millimeters, and medium-to-coarse sand, from .25 to 1 millimeter, but with very little in between.
“I challenge you to find a handful of grains from a New England beach that are about 5 millimeters (or just under one-quarter of an inch) in diameter,” says Jon Woodruff, a professor in UMass Amherst’s department of geosciences and lead author of a recently published paper in Marine Geology that details his team’s research. “There just aren’t many.”
It turns out the grain size is one of the crucial determinants of a beach’s slope, and researchers have long known that the finer the sand, the more gradually pitched the beach – up to a point. “The relationship between grain size and slope falls apart for coarser-grained beaches,” says Woodruff. Though many New England beaches are typically made up of coarse-grained particles, they still slope gradually to the water’s edge. Until now, no one knew why.
“Past researchers have always focused on either the mean or median grain size,” says Woodruff. It’s a method that works well for finer-grained beaches. But in a bi-modal, New England beach, the median grain size falls right in that gap between 1 and 10 millimeters. Woodruff and his team took over 1,000 samples from 18 beaches in Massachusetts from which they assembled the largest, publicly available dataset on New England beaches.
The UMass research group also included Steve Mabee and Nick Venti from the Massachusetts Geological Survey, as well as an army of students led by UMass co-authors Doug Beach and Alycia DiTroia. What Woodruff’s team discovered is that in bi-modal beaches, it’s only the finer-grained sand that determines a beach’s slope. “That smaller handful of sand grains,” says Woodruff, “is why beachgoers have a place to sunbathe in New England.”
This new research, which was conducted in partnership with the Massachusetts Office of Coastal Zone Management and supported by the federal Bureau of Ocean Energy Management and the Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center, has implications far beyond your next summer vacation. “Understanding how beach sand grain size influences the makeup of our beaches is critical for making projections as to how beaches will respond to storms and sea-level rise,” says Woodruff. “Especially given the attempts to preserve beaches from erosion, which cost many millions of dollars every year, we need to know what determines the shape and defining grain size characteristics of these beaches.”
Lake Victoria, which came under the spotlight in 2004 by the documentary “Darwin’s nightmare”, does not suffer only from the introduction and fishery of the Nile perch. A study by University of Liège oceanographer Alberto Borges has highlighted other worrying phenomena, particularly eutrophication and its interaction with climate, which has an equally important impact on the quality of the lake’s waters. This work was recently published in Freshwater Biology.
Located in East Africa, just south of the Equator, Lake Victoria is the source of the Nile and is the largest tropical lake in the world. With a surface area of 68,800 km² (twice the size of Belgium), it is considered to be one of the largest water and fishery resources in East Africa, supporting more than 47 million people in the three neighbor countries (Uganda, Tanzania and Kenya).
Lake Victoria is best known to the general public following the release of the 2004 documentary Darwin’s Nightmare which focused on the environmental and social effects of the Nile perch fishing industry. Voracious predator that can grow up to two meters long and weight of 200kg, the Nile perch is the largest freshwater fish. Its introduction into Lake Victoria in the 1950s and its population explosion in the 1960s gradually wiped out the native fish species, causing a major ecological disaster. Today, the Nile perch population remains ubiquitous but has declined slightly due to overfishing, allowing some fish species to partially recover.
What is less well known – and perhaps interacting with the presence of the Nile perch – but equally damaging to the ecosystem, is the general water quality of the lake. “Water quality declined sharply between the 1960s and the 1990s due to eutrophication, which is caused by increased inputs of nutrients (nitrogen and phosphorus) into the water bodies (rivers and lakes) as a result of increased human activities in the catchment area (intensive agriculture with fertilizers or domestic wastewater) resulting from population growth and economic development, explains Alberto Borges, FNRS Research Director at the Laboratory of Chemical Oceanography (FOCUS Research unit/ Faculty of Science) from the University of Liege. »
This eutrophication leads to a significant development of micro-algae (phytoplankton). In particular, cyanobacteria, blue-green micro-algae, can be problematic for human health as some forms are toxic. Moreover, the excess phytoplankton biomass (the organic matter from these algae) cannot generally be incorporated by the rest of the food web,” continues the researcher. This excess remains unused and stagnant at the bottom of the lakes, creating a phenomenon of anoxia, the absence of oxygen in the bottom waters of the lakes. This leads to the degradation of the ecosystem. »
Since the 1990s, no large-scale study of the water quality of Lake Victoria had been undertaken. It was within the framework of the LAVIGAS project – funded by the FNRS and led by Alberto Borges – that a research team was able to study the biomass and composition of phytoplankton as well as the nutrient status of the lake during three scientific missions (2018 -2019). This study shows that the phytoplankton biomass has decreased by about seven times compared to the 1990s,” says the researcher, “and that the species composition has also changed in a subtle way.” What seems to be good news for the environment of Lake Victoria may only be so on the surface…
Paradoxically, the quantity of nutrients remained comparable to that of the 1990s. This paradox can be explained, however, because in addition to nutrients, phytoplankton (like all plants) also need light to grow. In lakes, the amount of light for phytoplankton obviously depends on the solar radiation at the surface of the lake, but also on the depth of the water on which the phytoplankton cells reside. This depth, known as the mixed layer, depends mainly on the intensity of the wind. If the wind is intense, the depth of the mixed layer is greater, and the phytoplankton cells spend less time near the surface where the light is more intense, and do not develop as well,” explains Alberto Borges. Our work shows that current weather conditions are windier than in the 1990s, so the depth of the mixed layer is greater and phytoplankton growth less intensely than in the 1990s.” The weaker winds of the 1990s were related to the prevailing conditions of El Niño, a natural oscillation in global climate that originates from the large-scale atmospheric circulation over the Pacific Ocean and affects climate worldwide.
This rather complex story shows that the climate regime in the Pacific Ocean (El Niño) affects the ecology of a lake in Africa, on the other side of the planet! More specifically, it shows that the growth of phytoplankton – and therefore the rest of the food chain – in large tropical lakes responds to eutrophication in a complex way and is strongly modulated by climate,” says Alberto Borges. “This means that the current improvement in water quality in Lake Victoria may only be temporary, and that conditions could deteriorate again in the future if vertical mixing in the lake decreases due to reduced wind intensity (a new period of prevailing El Niño conditions) or due to continued climate warming.
Researchers led by Göttingen University examine the long-term results of an experiment from more than 40 years ago
The fairy circles of the Namib are one of nature’s greatest mysteries. Millions of these circular barren patches extend over vast areas along the margins of the desert in Namibia. In 1979, G.K. Theron published the first research about their origin. His hypothesis was that poisonous substances from Euphorbia damarana leaves induced fairy circles. As part of a new study, scientists from the University of Göttingen and the Gobabeb Namib Research Institute located the original euphorbia plants that were part of Theron’s study. Four decades later, the researchers are now able to conclusively disprove Theron’s original hypothesis. Their results were published in the journal BMC Ecology and Evolution.
In the late 1970s, South African botanist Theron noticed several dying and decomposing shrubs of euphorbia in the Giribes area of north-western Namibia. He therefore proposed that poisonous substances from the leaves of this plant could kill the grasses and induce fairy circles and his hypothesis was published in 1979. As part of the current study, scientists went back to this same area and managed to locate the original metal pins that marked the plants. In 2020, the research team documented these remote sites in detail for the first time, using ground-based photography as well as high-resolution drone imagery and historic satellite images.
The researchers show that none of the marked euphorbia locations developed into a fairy circle. Instead, long-lived grass tussocks were growing around all the metal pins. This runs contrary to the hypothesis that poisons from euphorbia inhibited the growth of other plants because these grasses survived. Given that the euphorbia hypothesis proposes that only dead and decaying shrubs would induce a barren patch, the researchers also measured the sizes of the dying euphorbias and compared them to the sizes of fairy circles in the same study plots. As well as in Giribes, this second part of the study was also carried out at Brandberg. In both regions, the diameters of decaying euphorbias could not explain the sizes of the much smaller or the larger fairy circles. In a third part of the study, the spatial patterns of the fairy circles were directly compared to the patterns of euphorbias within the same areas to investigate a potential link between both distributions in the regions Giribes, Brandberg and Garub. However, the patterns of shrubs and circles did not match: in four out of five plots the patterns differed significantly, with the circles being regularly distributed while the euphorbias were predominantly clustered. Hence the process that creates the pattern of fairy circles is different from the process that creates the pattern of the euphorbias.
Dr Stephan Getzin, Department of Ecosystem Modelling at the University of Göttingen, summarizes, “When Theron published his original euphorbia hypothesis more than four decades ago, he was a pioneer in fairy-circle research: almost nothing was known about them at that time. Today, however, we see the long-term outcome of his early experiment and – based on our detailed field observations – we have to reject the euphorbia hypothesis.” Getzin explains, “Disproving hypotheses about the origin of fairy circles is an important step in solving their mystery because it helps advance our scientific understanding. It enables us to identify more probable mechanisms which explain these stunning formations as well as other fascinating biological phenomena.”
This project was possible thanks to funding from the German Research Foundation (DFG).
Original publication: Getzin, S., Nambwandja, A., Holch, S. & Wiegand, K. (2021) Revisiting Theron’s hypothesis on the origin of fairy circles after four decades: Euphorbias are not the cause. BMC Ecology and Evolution, 21, 102. DoI: 10.1186/s12862-021-01834-5
Shiveluch, an active volcano located on the Kamchatka Peninsula in northeastern Russia, has had more major eruptions than any other volcano in our current period of geologic time – by a lot. In addition to having 5 times the number of explosive eruptions as Mount St. Helens, Shiveluch also boasts incredibly water-rich magmas that might help geoscientists gain insight into the global water cycle.
There isn’t much in Kamchatka, a remote peninsula in northeastern Russia just across the Bering Sea from Alaska, besides an impressive population of brown bears and the most explosive volcano in the world.
Video: Time-lapse video of a Shiveluch volcano eruption (Video: Michael Krawczynski)
Kamchatka’s Shiveluch volcano has had more than 40 violent eruptions over the last 10,000 years. The last gigantic blast occurred in 1964, creating a new crater and covering an area of nearly 100 square kilometers with pyroclastic flows. But Shiveluch is actually currently erupting, as it has been for over 20 years. So why would anyone risk venturing too close?
Though scientists aren’t certain exactly how much water is moving in and out of Earth’s interior, they know it must be balanced. “Subduction is bringing water back into the mantle. If you had nothing coming back out, eventually your oceans would just get sucked down into the mantle,” Krawczynski explained. “So, because that doesn’t happen, we know it’s a balanced cycle. We’re studying these volcanoes to find out how much water is coming back out to understand how much water is going in.”
Lead author Andrea Goltz, a graduate student working with Krawczynski, described Shiveluch as an extreme case in terms of its water content. Volcanoes like Shiveluch form at convergent margins where two tectonic plates meet and one slides under the other in the process of subduction. There is volcanism at convergent margins because water released from the subducting plate as it is pulled down into the Earth’s mantle decreases the melting point of the mantle, producing magmas. Though water is central to the formation of magmas at subduction settings, the amount of water dissolved in magmas at subduction settings is variable.
“This volcano, Shiveluch, is known to be especially hydrous. It’s an extreme case on the global subduction scene,” Goltz said. As magma travels up through the crust, it changes its composition, including its basic chemistry and water content. “Lots of researchers have looked at more evolved magma compositions at shallower depths, but less work has been done on the original starting water composition of less evolved (or more primitive) magmas. What we’ve done in this paper is to quantify this volcanic extreme.”
Quantifying the water content of primitive magmas before they have changed too much in composition tells scientists about processes involved in the formation of Shiveluch and other volcanoes like it. Knowing how much water is coming out of Earth’s interior through volcanoes is an important part of understanding the global flow of water. But, it’s a rare thing to have pristine, unaltered magmas erupting at the surface where researchers can sample them.
The process of cooling, crystallization, and eruption usually destroys the pristine, primitive nature of magmas and makes it difficult to estimate their water contents. Instead of targeting the voluminous products of volcanic eruptions, Goltz and her collaborators take a different approach. “In this study, we looked at small nodules of primitive magma that were erupted and preserved amid more evolved and voluminous material. The minerals in these nodules retain the signatures of what was happening early in the magma’s evolution, deep in Earth’s crust.”
Getting a glimpse of the deep, inner workings of Shiveluch is possible in part because it is so active. Though scientists can’t venture too close to the vent of the volcano itself during field work, the high output from Shiveluch has provided numerous samples from different eruptive events over time, which can be gathered from a relatively safe distance away from the active crater. Krawczynski pointed to one spot, for example, where researchers could sample many different lava flows or ash fall deposits, gaining access to the volcanic record without having to climb into the crater.
Earlier work from Krawczynski’s lab established limits on how much water content might be captured by crystal melt inclusions in erupted magmas. This new study complements that work by going as close as possible to the original material and determining how much more water it might have contained, beyond what can be preserved in a melt inclusion. Of particular interest is a mineral called amphibole, which acts as a proxy or fingerprint for high water content at known temperature and pressure. The unique chemistry of the mineral tells researchers how much water is present deep underneath Shiveluch.
Spoiler alert: it’s a lot.
“Amphibole is special in that it likes to crystallize from primitive melts at relatively low temperatures and relatively high water contents,” Goltz explained. “We know it’s crystallizing early in primitive magmas because we’re finding it inside another mineral called olivine. By themselves, olivine and amphibole are common, but finding them together is really rare. That co-existence in the same magma limits the possible temperature of primitive magmas at Shiveluch and requires high water content.”
The conditions inside Shiveluch include roughly 10-14% water by weight (wt%). Most volcanoes have less than 1% water. For subduction zone volcanoes, the average is usually 4%, rarely exceeding 8 wt%, which is considered superhydrous.
“When you convert the chemistry of these two minerals, amphibole and olivine, into temperatures and water contents as we do in this paper, the results are remarkable both in terms of how much water and how low a temperature we’re recording,” Krawczynski said. “The only way to get primitive, pristine materials at low temperatures is to add lots and lots of water. Adding water to rock has the same effect as adding salt to ice; you’re lowering the melting point. In this case, there is so much water that the temperature is reduced to a point where amphiboles can crystallize.”
Goltz’s results prove what Krawczynski’s earlier study suggested was possible – magmas with very high water contents do exist. How common such superhydrous magmas are remains an open question. Though Shiveluch is known to be a special case in terms of its activity, it is possible there are superhydrous magmas in volcanoes all over the world. Geochemists might simply have no access to telltale chemical signatures if they aren’t preserved through eruption.
“That’s such an important question for the global water cycle, but it’s not even a question that you could ask until we did this work and showed that these things do exist,” Krawczynski said.
“Looking at something this extreme can inform how we look at other volcanoes,” Goltz added. “It expands the imagination and the limits of human exploration.”
Reference: Goltz, A.E., Krawczynski, M.J., Gavrilenko, M. et al. Evidence for superhydrous primitive arc magmas from mafic enclaves at Shiveluch volcano, Kamchatka. Contrib Mineral Petrol 175, 115 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00410-020-01746-5 (2)
As a host, 90-year-old Alfrida Lantong is somewhat passive. Lying resolutely on her back and gazing up through a pair of thick, dusty spectacles, she roundly ignores her son’s murmured greeting as he enters the room, and she pays little heed to the gaggle of grandchildren clustered around her.
But Alfrida can hardly be blamed for her unresponsiveness. After all, she has been dead for the last seven years.
Alfrida is of the Toraja people of southern Sulawesi in Indonesia, for whom the line between life and death is not black and white. Though her heart stopped beating in 2012, as far as her family is concerned, she is only to macula, which translates loosely as “sick.” They still visit her regularly, talk to her and bring her three meals a day, which they leave on the floor.
After saying goodbye, Alfrida’s son, Mesak, covers her with a light veil and closes the lid of her coffin before exiting the room. He will visit her again at supper time. “We would miss her if she didn’t still live here,” says the 47-year-old. “She looked after us our whole lives, so now it is important that we look after her too.”
Beyond her silent companionship, one of the reasons Alfrida still lives with her family is that even after seven years, preparations for her funeral are not yet complete. In Torajan culture, a person’s funeral is the most important day of his or her life. Funerals can be so expensive that successive generations will be saddled with crippling debt. The events can last a week and involve the slaughter of hundreds of livestock.
“We need more time to save,” says Mesak, whose family belongs to what he calls the “noble” class in the stratified Torajan caste system. “The community would not respect us if we did a small funeral. We must sacrifice many buffalo.”
Toraja country stretches for hundreds of miles across the mountainous interior of Sulawesi, a land of verdant hills and scattered villages connected by a network of dirt tracks that wind their way through lush rice paddies and patches of thick forest. It is an enclave of Christianity in a predominantly Muslim country, although traditional beliefs remain prevalent. Especially when it comes to death.
Throughout most of the world, death is a topic that generally inspires dread. It marks the sudden and irreversible rupture of a person from their loved ones. Even if one believes in an afterlife, the immediate severing of the connection between the dead and the living is absolute. When anthropomorphized in popular culture, death is often depicted as a malevolent entity, the sinister black-cloaked figure clutching a scythe.
Not so in Tana Toraja, the land where the Torajans live. Here, death is not something to shy away from. It is an all-pervading presence in day-to-day life, inscribed into the landscape in eerie wooden tau-tau statues, commissioned by the bereaved to remember the dead, and into the social calendar, which revolves heavily around funerals.
Death is even central to the economy: Families often save for years so they can afford the elaborate exchanges of gifts, money and freshly slaughtered meat that take place during the events, which are seen as a key means of redistributing wealth in Torajan society.
Death provides livelihoods for thousands of people here, both in the tourism sector and in funeral-related businesses. That includes the farmhands who look after the exorbitantly expensive sacrificial buffaloes, the restaurants and hotels springing up in the town of Rantepao and the artisans who craft the wooden tau-tau statues that adorn graves.
These statues — which range in appearance from highly stylized to disconcertingly lifelike — are a prominent feature of the caves, outcrops and escarpments that dot the countryside. For Jeffrey Maguling, a young tau-tau carver whose family has been in the business for four generations, the statues are an art form as well as a source of income.
“I don’t just copy photos of the dead person,” says Maguling, who works from a small wooden shack by the roadside south of Rantepao. “I try to capture the person’s character. It takes me about 10 days to make one.” And he can sell a statue for about 15 million rupiah, or $1,100.
“There’s more demand than in my father’s time,” he adds. “The population has grown, so there are more people dying. It makes me happy when my clients like the tau-tau. But I will always share their sadness.”
It’s not that Torajans don’t mourn their loved ones. But the process is softened by the gradual — and never-ending — nature of the transition from one world to another in Torajan cosmology. Even after people are buried, they are not really gone. Their tau-tau statues continue to stand tall on their cliff-top perches, eternally surveying the bustling land of the living below.
In some communities, to show respect, the dead are exhumed every few years and dressed in fresh clothes, often with a new pair of sunglasses, as if their pride over their appearance had not expired with their bodies.
And when a baby dies, the body is sometimes buried in a hole carved out of the trunk of a tree so that the two may live on and grow together.
In a village near Alfrida Lantong’s home, set on a steep hillside above a sea of brilliant apple-green paddies, another Torajan family is making last-minute preparations for its big day. The “sick” man, Lucas Ruruk, was a farmer from one of the middle social classes. His funeral will be of average size by Torajan standards. Yet the family is still expecting 5,000 guests and estimates that the event, which will last several days, will cost roughly 250 million rupiah (around $18,000). That’s roughly five times the average yearly income in Indonesia.
“We’re sad about the funeral,” says Ruruk’s 28-year-old son, Izak Sapan. “But it is the most important day in my father’s life. It is when his soul will make the journey to heaven.”
His father lies upstairs in his bedroom, dressed immaculately in a dark suit and tie and a white shirt with floral designs on the collar. He died the previous month and has been lying here receiving visitors ever since. Shortly after death, his body was injected with a formaldehyde solution to prevent it from decomposing, as is the local custom.
The next morning, Ruruk’s home is a scene of pandemonium. Trussed-up pigs are carried in squealing on bamboo stretchers while vendors set up stalls by the entrance selling soft drinks, snacks and cigarettes to the arriving guests. As the event gets underway, buffaloes are led out to have their throats slit in front of a transfixed crowd. A DJ plays local ballads, and a group of women performs traditional dances as the ground slowly turns scarlet with blood. A video crew hired by the family records the scene.
So too do approximately 100 tourists, both local and international, clutching cameras as they trail behind their guides. The idea of tourists traveling hundreds of miles to attend a stranger’s funeral may seem somewhat jarring. But on the whole, their presence is welcomed by Torajan families, who believe that a well-attended funeral bestows honor on the deceased.
“We are happy that many foreigners have come,” says the dead man’s nephew, Suande. “It means we can share our sadness with many people, and it shows respect for my uncle.”
The area has become one of the biggest tourist destinations on the island of Sulawesi. August is a particularly busy time for local guesthouses, with a surge of tourists turning up to watch the manene event, during which bodies are removed from their graves, redressed in fresh clothes and sometimes carried around the village before being laid back to rest for another few years.
On a recent Monday, tourists streamed like ants up and down a steep track clinging to the side of a cliff in the village of Kete Kesu, where hundreds of bodies are buried. They ogled the piles of skulls and bones that lay in hollowed-out tree trunks along the route and used their cellphones to light up the inside of burial caves. Some posed for photos beside the remains, unsure whether to smile or look serious.
Back in Alfrida Lantong’s household, the endless saving continues. Her son estimates that the event will cost over a billion rupiah (about $73,800).
“But we don’t even think about the cost,” Mesak, her son, says. “She will be traveling to the realm of the soul, and we must send her off in our own way. It is our Torajan culture. It is what we do.”
Tommy Trenchard and Aurélie Marrier d’Unienville are independent photojournalists based in Cape Town, South Africa. They have previously collaborated on projects ranging from conservation gone wrong in Uganda to the changing lives of Indonesia’s sea nomads to the fight against ISIS in Iraq.
Brazil’s Fernando de Noronha is fabled as an eco-wonderland and a beach-lovers’ Shangri-la, where even the sharks are friendly. Mike Hodgkinson finds out if it lives up to the hype.
Ask about Fernando de Noronha when you’re in Sao Paulo, and your enquiry will invariably meet with a combination of wonderment, national pride, jealousy and misinformation. Fernando de Noronha is an island – named after a 16th-century Portuguese nobleman who may never have actually set foot there – that exists in the Brazilian imagination somewhere not far from Shangri-la, Atlantis and paradise. People glaze over when you mention it: eyeballs tend to roll upwards in that universal gesture of delight.
We were told by friends, acquaintances and strangers – none of whom had actually been to Fernando de Noronha – to expect the most spectacular beaches in all of Brazil. Some were certain that jet aircraft are barred from landing there; others warned that there is only one hotel and absolutely no internet. Naomi Campbell, we were reliably informed, goes there to unwind after Sao Paulo Fashion Week, but – far from being just a bolt-hole for the wealthy – it is also a fiercely protected eco-wonderland, favoured by naturalists and marine biologists. The island’s luxuriously warm and unsullied emerald waters are, it was widely agreed, teeming with dolphins and turtles. What’s more, the consensus assured us that every type of shark common to the area is, in fact, friendly.
Like most people from outside Latin American we had never heard of Fernando de Noronha, and because less than half of what we’d been told seemed even remotely plausible, we turned to Charles Darwin for supporting testimony. He stopped there in 1832, after one of his crew had harpooned a porpoise for supper (Darwin was evidently no Dr Dolittle), but spent only a day “wandering about the woods” before setting off in hopes of finding “greater wonders” elsewhere. His account – except for reports of “a conical hill, about one thousand feet high, the upper part of which is exceedingly steep” – is distinctly underwhelming. Would this living paradise, in reality, turn out to be little more than a product of mass exaggeration? Or would it live up to the hype?
Fernando de Noronha is, strictly speaking, an archipelago made up of one 11-square-mile chunk of volcanic rock and 20 smaller islands, three degrees south of the equator, 220 miles from Brazil’s north-eastern coast. The flight from Sao Paulo – on a modern passenger jet, for the record – pauses briefly in the seafront city of Recife before continuing out into the Atlantic, and touching down on an airstrip that occupies a large portion of the lush, green interior. From above, the promise of an outrageously attractive wonderland – glinting turquoise sea, pristine sand – is instantly made good.
After happily coughing up an Environment Protection Tax at the airport (seven days costs about £65 per person), we were taken by Land Rover to our hotel – the Pousada do Vale – a friendly place on a wooded lane near the island’s first permanent settlement, the Vila dos Remédios. Within half an hour, we fully understood the basic climatic reality of life on Noronha during the rainy season (April to August) – bursts of blistering sunshine punctuated by torrential downpours. As a result, nature goes into overdrive: explosions of greenery; reptilian battalions of frogs and native, yellow-eyed mabuya lizards; and clouds of low-flying, almost invisible borrachudo mosquitoes that have a voracious appetite for human ankle flesh. Self-preservation quickly drove us to the most effective, but least environmentally friendly, of the two insect repellants offered by the pousada: not the ideal start on a Unesco World Heritage Site and designated maritime national park where swimming in sun-screen is, in places, forbidden lest the delicate eco-system be damaged.
As night fell like a cosh, the island’s split-personality began to reveal itself. All the evidence so far had marked out Noronha as a dream destination for tropic-hardened biologists, but the appearance of several smartly dressed couples, picking their way gingerly over rain-slicked cobblestones, confirmed its bread-and-butter identity as a magnet for well-heeled honeymooners. Their shoes were muddied, and their lower legs were – like ours – borrachudo’d, but they had paid good money for romance in paradise and no extremes of nature were going to take that from them. The remoteness of the island – and its perceived value as the perfect holiday destination – keeps prices (food, lodging) perennially high, on a par with pricier quarters of Sao Paulo, enhancing its exclusivity and mystique.
The evening, spent over several cans of lager at a bar called Tom Marrom, surrendered a colourful procession of diverse characters: a local teenager rode past on a horse, followed by a man in a dune buggy who appeared to be modelling himself after Steve McQueen’s Thomas Crown. The dune buggy turns out to be the island’s most common form of transportation: not exactly the environmentalist’s first choice, but practical given a road system structured largely around the pot-hole, the gully and the rut. The bar’s waitresses wore fake pig-tails and painted-on freckles, and danced – between deliveries of food – to the live forró band. Forró is an accordion-based type of folk-dance music particular to the north-east of Brazil, with an intoxicating and swampy feel to it. One band member traditionally plays the triangle, which we assumed was the least-taxing, most Bez-like role, until our trianglist started to sing, very well, and instantly shot up in our estimation.
After a night spent under the watchful eye of several mabuyas, we set about discovering that the best of Noronha is to be found on and under the water. A three-hour round trip by boat from the island’s small harbour is as good an introduction to the island as any, and features a 40-minute snorkelling stop at the astoundingly pretty Baia do Sancho. En route we were shown rock formations that (sort of) resemble a dog, an Egyptian mummy and King Kong, caught passing glimpses of flying fish, a stray turtle and several javelin-shaped barracuda. The big draw, though, was the resident spinner dolphins – so-called because they jump clear of the water in acrobatic spirals – that turn up in their hundreds on a daily basis. You just can’t argue with wild dolphins en masse: some would insist they’re worth the hefty price of admission to Noronha alone.
We could neither confirm nor deny the rumoured friendliness of the local sharks – the lemon shark, nurse shark and Caribbean reef shark are the most common – because we didn’t see any, but we can state that there have been no reported attacks (touch wood). In marked contrast to the mainland coast near Recife, where environmental disruption has provoked a dramatic rise in fatal shark encounters, the protected marine eco-system around Noronha appears to offer the creatures all the sustenance they require.
Other nature-based highlights included the walking route to Baia do Sancho, which involves negotiating two ladders on a sheer cliff-face and feels moderately adventurous, until you realise that it’s regularly tackled by old ladies in flip-flops; and a lunch of freshly caught barracuda at Bar do Meio on the Praia do Meio, frigate birds circling overhead. Away from the beaches, the ruins of a prison offers a hint of life on Noronha before the modern tourist era. Gypsies (in 1739) and capoeira fighters (in 1890) were incarcerated there, unaware that their living hell would one day morph into a high-end eco-destination.
Fish night back at the Pousada do Vale – during which the hand-delivered catch is wrapped in banana leaves and grilled – is free for guests on Thursdays. The hotel’s two-storey “bungalows” have balconies with hammocks, and it was in one of them that we weighed up our thoughts on the island. Had Noronha lived up to the hype? No question about it, the place is gorgeous – whatever nature had taken away by sending deluges of Atlantic rain and vindictive insects, it had given back in spades with stunning marine life, dramatic rock formations and priceless sunsets. But there was still the sneaking suspicion that Fernando de Noronha has something of an identity crisis. By selling itself as both a strictly patrolled eco-paradise and a dream destination for the well-off – where bicycles are out-muscled by petrol-chugging buggies, and much of the food is flown in – the island comes across as confused. The price-tag for a holiday there is likely to deter many, but for honeymooning scuba divers who aren’t short of a bob or two, Fernando de Noronha is a live contender.
Getting there When to go: Dry/high season (from September up to March) and rainy/low season (from April up to August)
Specialist operator: Tim Best Travel; +44 (0)20 7591 0300; timbesttravel.com; firstname.lastname@example.org
Where to stay:
Pousada do Vale, Rua Pescador Sérgio Lino, 18 – Jardim Elizabeth; pousadadovale.com/ingles; +55 (81) 3619 1293. Bungalows from 648 reais; £200 a night
Pousada Maravilha, BR 363 Sueste; pousadamaravilha.com.br/ingles/pousada.htm; +55 (81) 3619 0028. From 1,230 to 2,710 reais per night (£385 to £848)
Pousada Zé Maria, Rua Nice Cordeiro, 01 – Floresta Velha; pousadazemaria.com.br; +55 (81) 3619 1258. Doubles from 558 reais in the low-season (£174)
This article is republished here from Guardian under common creative licenses.
Havasu Falls is tucked into a remote area of the Grand Canyon. While it isn’t easy to get to, it’s certainly worth the effort as one of the most stunning waterfalls in the entire country.
Its name translates to “people of the blue-green waters,” and sitting against fiery red rock canyon walls, the crystal clear azure waters take on remarkable hues thanks to the high level of calcium carbonate and magnesium, which creates an especially jaw-dropping contrast.
The cascading water plunges down into travertine swimming holes below, offering one of the most extraordinary spots for taking a refreshing dip.
Most people have at least heard about Havasu Falls, but know little else about it.
To get to this place considered sacred by the Havasupai, you’ll need to take a ten-mile hike, mule or horse ride, but that just means more scenery to soak up on your own, as the arduous trek prevents the area from getting too crowded.
The falls are not actually in Grand Canyon National Park, but on the Havasupai Indian Reservation nearby. It’s something you have to plan well in advance for, with most visitors making the 10-mile trek that starts from the Reservation, which is a 4-hour drive from Las Vegas or Phoenix.
The Havasupai tribe controls access to Havasu and the other falls nearby, requiring an overnight stay in the canyon as well as a permit to hike to the falls that must be reserved months in advance.
Most people camp at the Havasu Campground, though you’ll have to carry your camping equipment with you while hiking so packing as light as possible is a must. While there are pack horses that can be hired to help, the searing hot temperatures and rugged terrain is incredibly tough on them too.
While that may sound like a lot of work to get to this little remote corner of paradise, the journey to get there coupled with the sight of these magical falls is truly a life-changing experience.
The 2018 eruption of Kīlauea Volcano was one of the largest volcanic events in Hawaiʻi in 200 years. This eruption was triggered by a relatively small and rapid change at the volcano after a decade-long build-up of pressure in the upper parts of the volcano, according to a recent study published in Nature Communications by earth scientists from the University of Hawai‘i (UH) at Mānoa and U.S. Geological Survey (USGS).
Using USGS Hawaiian Volcanoes Observatory (HVO) data from before and during the 2018 eruptions at the summit and flank, the research team reconstructed the geologic events.
“The data suggest that a backup in the magma plumbing system at the long-lived Puʻu ʻŌʻō eruption site caused widespread pressurization in the volcano, driving magma into the lower flank,” said Matthew Patrick, research geologist at the USGS HVO and lead author of the study.
The eruption evolved, and its impact expanded, as a sequence of cascading events allowed relatively minor changes at Puʻu ʻŌʻō to cause major destruction and historic changes across the volcano.
A cascading series of events of this type was not considered the most likely outcome in the weeks prior to the onset of the eruption.
“This form of tunnel vision, which gives less attention to the least likely outcomes, is a bias that can be overcome by considering the broader, longer history of the volcano,” said Bruce Houghton, the Hawai‘i State Volcanologist, earth sciences professor at the UH Mānoa School of Ocean and Earth Science and Technology and study co-author. “For Kīlauea, this consists of widening the scope to consider the types of behavior seen in the first half of the 20th century and perhaps earlier.”
“Our study demonstrates that eruption forecasting can be inherently challenging in scenarios where volcanoes prime slowly and trigger due to a small event, as the processes that build to eruption may be hard to detect and are easy to overlook on the scale of the entire volcano,” said Patrick. “It is also a cautionary tale against over-reliance on recent activity as a guide for future eruptions.”
The State of Hawai‘i absorbed a significant amount of the economic and social cost of the 2018 eruption and likely will do so again as Kīlauea and Mauna Loa continue to erupt, suggested Houghton. Studies like this, which probe the more subtle influences of the behavior of these volcanoes, are targeted at reducing the costs, human and physical, of the next eruptions.
With future work the research team aims to adopt diverse approaches to understanding the subsurface structure and movement of magma on Kīlauea’s East Rift Zone.
References: Patrick, M.R., Houghton, B.F., Anderson, K.R. et al. The cascading origin of the 2018 Kīlauea eruption and implications for future forecasting. Nat Commun 11, 5646 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41467-020-19190-1
Scientists have detected what they say are the sediments of a huge ancient lake bed sealed more than a mile under the ice of northwest Greenland–the first-ever discovery of such a sub-glacial feature anywhere in the world. Apparently formed at a time when the area was ice-free but now completely frozen in, the lake bed may be hundreds of thousands or millions of years old, and contain unique fossil and chemical traces of past climates and life. Scientists consider such data vital to understanding what the Greenland ice sheet may do in coming years as climate warms, and thus the site makes a tantalizing target for drilling. A paper describing the discovery is in press at the journal Earth and Planetary Science Letters.
“This could be an important repository of information, in a landscape that right now is totally concealed and inaccessible,” said Guy Paxman, a postdoctoral researcher at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and lead author of the report. “We’re working to try and understand how the Greenland ice sheet has behaved in the past. It’s important if we want to understand how it will behave in future decades.” The ice sheet, which has been melting at an accelerating pace in recent years, contains enough water to raise global sea levels by about 24 feet.
The researchers mapped out the lake bed by analyzing data from airborne geophysical instruments that can read signals that penetrate the ice and provide images of the geologic structures below. Most of the data came from aircraft flying at low altitude over the ice sheet as part of NASA’s Operation IceBridge.
The team says the basin once hosted a lake covering about 7,100 square kilometers (2,700 square miles), about the size of the U.S. states of Delaware and Rhode Island combined. Sediments in the basin, shaped vaguely like a meat cleaver, appear to range as much as 1.2 kilometers (three quarters of a mile) thick. The geophysical images show a network of at least 18 apparent onetime stream beds carved into the adjoining bedrock in a sloping escarpment to the north that must have fed the lake. The image also show at least one apparent outlet stream to the south. The researchers calculate that the water depth in the onetime lake ranged from about 50 meters to 250 meters (a maximum of about 800 feet).
In recent years, scientists have found existing subglacial lakes in both Greenland and Antarctica, containing liquid water sandwiched in the ice, or between bedrock and ice. This is the first time anyone has spotted a fossil lake bed, apparently formed when there was no ice, and then later covered over and frozen in place. There is no evidence that the Greenland basin contains liquid water today.
Paxman says there is no way to tell how old the lake bed is. Researchers say it is likely that ice has periodically advanced and retreated over much of Greenland for the last 10 million years, and maybe going back as far as 30 million years. A 2016 study led by Lamont-Doherty geochemist Joerg Schaefer has suggested that most of the Greenland ice may have melted for one or more extended periods some time in the last million years or so, but the details of that are sketchy. This particular area could have been repeatedly covered and uncovered, Paxman said, leaving a wide range of possibilities for the lake’s history. In any case, Paxman says, the substantial depth of the sediments in the basin suggest that they must have built up during ice-free times over hundreds of thousands or millions of years.
“If we could get at those sediments, they could tell us when the ice was present or absent,” he said.
The researchers assembled a detailed picture of the lake basin and its surroundings by analyzing radar, gravity and magnetic data gathered by NASA. Ice-penetrating radar provided a basic topographic map of the earth’ s surface underlying the ice. This revealed the outlines of the smooth, low-lying basin, nestled among higher-elevation rocks. Gravity measurements showed that the material in the basin is less dense than the surrounding hard, metamorphic rocks–evidence that it is composed of sediments washed in from the sides. Measurements of magnetism (sediments are less magnetic than solid rock) helped the team map the depths of the sediments.
The researchers say the basin may have formed along a now long-dormant fault line, when the bedrock stretched out and formed a low spot. Alternatively, but less likely, previous glaciations may have carved out the depression, leaving it to fill with water when the ice receded.
What the sediments might contain is a mystery. Material washed out from the edges of the ice sheet have been found to contain the remains of pollen and other materials, suggesting that Greenland may have undergone warm periods during the last million years, allowing plants and maybe even forests to take hold. But the evidence is not conclusive, in part because it is hard to date such loose materials. The newly discovered lake bed, in contrast, could provide an intact archive of fossils and chemical signals dating to a so-far unknown distant past.
The basin “may therefore be an important site for future sub-ice drilling and the recovery of sediment records that may yield valuable insights into the glacial, climatological and environmental history” of the region, the researchers write. With the top of the sediments lying 1.8 kilometers below the current ice surface (1.1 miles), such drilling would be daunting, but not impossible. In the 1990s, researchers penetrated almost 2 miles into the summit of the Greenland ice sheet and recovered several feet of bedrock–at the time, the deepest ice core ever drilled. The feat, which took five years, has not since been repeated in Greenland, but a new project aimed at reaching shallower bedrock in another part of northwest Greenland is being planned for the next few years.