Category: geology

Edit: It’s about the physicists, don’t @ me


In sandy deserts, winds can build a vast network of dunes whose shapes depend on the winds that built them. This photograph, taken by an astronaut aboard the International Space Station, shows part of a Saharan dune field known as the Grand Erg Oriental. Of the five basic types of sand dunes, this field features all but one. The predominant winds of the region build most of the dunes into long, straight chains separated by interdune flats some 150 meters lower in elevation. Within the chains, there are linear dunes, created by winds blowing nearly parallel to the dune’s long axis. In places where winds tend to change directions, several linear dunes may merge to form star dunes, like the one just below and right of center in the image. Transverse dunes form perpendicular to the predominant wind direction. The one shown in the upper left of this image may have formed when multiple crescant-shaped barchan dunes merged. (Image credit: NASA, via NASA Earth Observatory)

Recurring slope lineae (RSL) are seasonal features on Mars that leave behind gullies similar to those left by running water on Earth. Their discovery a few years ago has prompted many experiments at Martian conditions to determine how these features form. At Martian surface pressures and temperatures, it’s not unusual for water to boil. And that boiling, as some experiments have shown, introduces opportunities for new transport mechanisms. 

Researchers found that water in “warm” (T = 288 K) sand boils vigorously, ejecting sand particles and creating larger pellets of saturated sand. Water continues boiling out of the pellets once they form, creating a layer of vapor that helps levitate them as they flow downslope. The effect is similar to the Leidenfrost effect with drops of water sliding on a hot skillet; there’s little friction between the pellet and the surface, allowing it to travel farther. 

The mechanism is quite efficient in experiments under Earth gravity and would be even more so under Mars’ lower gravity. It also requires less water than alternative explanations. The pellets that form are too small to be seen by the satellites we have imaging Mars, but the tracks they leave behind are similar to the RSL seen above. (Image credit: NASA; research credit: J. Raack et al., 1, 2; via R. Anderson; submitted by jpshoer)

Fluid flow

through porous media

inside confined spaces can be tough to predict but is key to many geological and industrial processes. Here researchers examine a mixture of glass beads and water-glycerol trapped between two slightly tilted plates. As liquid is drained from the bottom of the cell, air intrudes. Loose grains pile up along the meniscus and get slowly bulldozed as the air continues forcing its way in. The result is a labyrinthine maze formed by air fingers of a characteristic width. The final pattern depends on a competition between hydrostatic pressure and the frictional forces between grains. Despite the visual similarity to phenomena like the Saffman-Taylor instability, the authors found that viscosity does not play a major role. For more, check out the video abstract here. (Image and research credit: J. Erikson et al., source)

Although we often think of solids as immovable in the face of flow, the motion of air and water sculpts many parts of our world. One common pattern, seen both on surfaces that melt and those that dissolve into a flow, is called scalloping. Mathematical analysis shows that flat surfaces exposed to a flow that melts or dissolves them unavoidably develop these scallops. The surface becomes rougher as the scallops form, but the instability that drives them only works up to a specific level of roughness. Instead of the scallops becoming deeper and deeper, the flow shifts as the surface changes. Peaks in the surface erode faster than the valleys, which tends to keep the scallops relatively uniform in depth after they’ve formed. Scallops like these are often seen in soluble rocks like limestone or marble as well as in snow and ice. (Image credit: Seattle Times, G. Smith; research credit: P. Claudin et al., L. Ristroph)

We don’t typically think of the ground beneath our feet as anything but solid, but over geologically long time scales, even mountains can flow. Buoyant convection inside the Earth’s mantle is thought to drive the plate tectonics that have shaped the Earth as we know it. The video above explains some of the major processes and events that shaped the modern North American continent, including collisions, subduction, volcanism, and erosion. (Video credit: Ted-Ed)

The Galapagos islands are geologically similar to the Hawaiian islands; both are archipelagos that were born and continue to be formed by lava flows originating from a volcanic hot spot. Lava from this type of volcano is high in basalt content, which affects both its flow properties and the formations it creates. Geologists have actually borrowed words from the Hawaiian language to describe the two main kinds of lava formations seen in basaltic flows: pahoehoe and a’a

Pahoehoe formations tend to be relatively smooth and often leave behind a pattern of rope-like coils (below). In contrast, a’a lava features are sharp, rough, and challenging to traverse. Both flows are gravity-driven, and which features a given eruption forms depends on many factors. Many flows will even begin with a pahoehoe section that stretches for several kilometers before transitioning to an a’a structure. Researchers believe the transition occurs when the lava crystallizes enough to develop a yield-strength, meaning that it will behave like a solid until enough force is applied to make it flow again. Toothpaste, ointment, and mud are similar so-called yield stress fluids which will only flow after a critical force is applied.  (Image credits: lava flow – Epic Lava Tours, source; pahoehoe lava – J. Shoer)

Galapagos Week continues tomorrow here on FYFD. Check out previous posts.

For me, one of the most fun aspects of studying science is seeking out examples of it in the world around us. Adam Voiland – who writes for NASA Earth Observatory, one of FYFD’s favorite sources for excellent fluids in action – takes this a step further with his children’s book “ABCs From Space: A Discovered Alphabet”. Voiland has sought out satellite imagery from around the world to illustrate all twenty-six letters, creating a lovely book for budding scientists of all sorts.

Each letter has its own full-page image with no added text, like the G and H shown above. Younger children will have fun identifying and tracing out each letter. The back of the book provides more detail for older kids and adults, including brief descriptions of where and what each image shows, a map of all image locations, and some FAQs about satellite imagery and the geology, meteorology, and earth science on display. There are enough specifics to satisfy casual interest, but I suspect that science-inclined adults will find the book a fun springboard for more in-depth discussions with curious kids.

Fluid dynamics itself makes a solid showing in the book. Several letters are formed by vortices (like G above) and various types of clouds, including the ship track clouds (like H) that form when water condenses on aerosols released by ship exhaust. There are also meandering rivers, creeping glaciers, and erosion features among the letters.

I’m often asked about resources for teaching kids about fluid dynamics, and Voiland’s book is a great option for introducing that subject, as well as many other fields of science. (Image credits: A. Voiland/Simon & Schuster)

Disclosure: I received a review copy of this book but was not otherwise compensated by the author or publisher. All opinions are my own. Additionally, this post contains affiliate links. Purchases made using these links do not cost you anything extra but may provide FYFD with a commission. Thanks!