Carbonate Petrography

Carbonate petrography is the study of limestones, dolomites and associated deposits under optical or electron microscopes greatly enhances field studies or core observations and can provide a frame of reference for geochemical studies.

25 strangest Geologic Formations on Earth

The strangest formations on Earth.

What causes Earthquake?

Of these various reasons, faulting related to plate movements is by far the most significant. In other words, most earthquakes are due to slip on faults.

The Geologic Column

As stated earlier, no one locality on Earth provides a complete record of our planet’s history, because stratigraphic columns can contain unconformities. But by correlating rocks from locality to locality at millions of places around the world, geologists have pieced together a composite stratigraphic column, called the geologic column, that represents the entirety of Earth history.

Folds and Foliations

Geometry of Folds Imagine a carpet lying flat on the floor. Push on one end of the carpet, and it will wrinkle or contort into a series of wavelike curves. Stresses developed during mountain building can similarly warp or bend bedding and foliation (or other planar features) in rock. The result a curve in the shape of a rock layer is called a fold.

Saturday, 26 December 2015

Groundwater Problems

Groundwater Problems

Since prehistoric times, groundwater has been an important resource that people have relied on for drinking, irrigation, and industry. Groundwater feeds the lushness of desert oases in the Sahara, the amber grain in the North American high plains, and the growing cities of sunny arid regions. 
Though groundwater accounts for about 95% of the liquid freshwater on the planet, accessible groundwater cannot be replenished quickly, and this leads to shortages. Groundwater contamination is also a growing tragedy. Such pollution, caused when toxic wastes and other impurities infiltrate down to the water table, may be invisible to us but may ruin a water supply for generations to come. In this section, we’ll take a look at problems associated with the use of groundwater supplies. 

Depletion of Groundwater Supplies 

Is groundwater a renewable resource? In a time frame of 10,000 years, the answer is yes, for the hydrologic cycle will eventually resupply depleted reserves. But in a time frame of 100 to 1,000 years the span of a human lifetime or a civilization groundwater in many regions may be a non-renewable resource. By pumping water out of the ground at a rate faster than nature replaces it, people are effectively “mining” the groundwater supply. In fact, in portions of the desert Sunbelt region of the United States, supplies of young groundwater have already been exhausted, and deep wells now extract 10,000-year old groundwater. Some of this ancient water has been in rock so long that it has become too mineralized to be usable. A number of other problems accompany the depletion of groundwater.

Effects of human modification of the water table.
  • Lowering the water table: When we extract groundwater from wells at a rate faster than it can be resupplied by nature, the water table drops. First, a cone of depression forms locally around the well; then the water table gradually becomes lower in a broad region. As a consequence, existing wells, springs, and rivers, and swamps dry up (figure above a, b). To continue tapping into the water supply, we must drill progressively deeper. Notably, the water table can also drop when people divert surface water from the recharge area. Such a problem has developed in the Everglades of southern Florida, a huge swamp where, before the expansion of Miami and the development of agriculture, the water table lay at the ground surface (figure above c, d). Diversion of water from the Everglades’ recharge area into canals has significantly lowered the water table, causing parts of the Everglades to dry up.
  • Reversing the flow direction of groundwater: The cone of depression that develops around a well creates a local slope to the water table. The resulting hydraulic gradient may be large enough to reverse the flow direction of nearby groundwater (figure below a, b). Such reversals can allow contaminants, seeping out of a septic tank, to contaminate the well.
  • Saline intrusion: In coastal areas, fresh groundwater lies in a layer above saline (salty) water that entered the aquifer from the adjacent ocean (figure below c, d). Because fresh water is less dense than saline water, it floats above the saline water. If people pump water out of a well too quickly, the boundary between the saline water and the fresh groundwater rises. And if this boundary rises above the base of the well, then the well will start to yield useless saline water. Geologists refer to this phenomenon as saline intrusion. 
  • Pore collapse and land subsidence: When groundwater fills the pore space of a rock or sediment, it holds the grains apart, for water cannot be compressed. The extraction of water from a pore eliminates the support holding the grains apart, because the air that replaces the water can be compressed. As a result, the grains pack more closely together. Such pore collapse permanently decreases the porosity and permeability of a rock, and thus lessens its value as an aquifer (figure below e, f).
Some causes of groundwater problems.
Pore collapse also decreases the volume of the aquifer, with the result that the ground above the aquifer sinks. Such land subsidence may cause fissures at the surface to develop and the ground to tilt. Buildings constructed over regions undergoing land subsidence may themselves tilt, or their foundations may crack. In the San Joaquin Valley of California, the land surface subsided by 9 m between 1925 and 1975, because water was removed to irrigate farm fields.

Natural Groundwater Quality 

Much of the world’s groundwater is crystal clear, and pure enough to drink right out of the ground. Rocks and sediment are natural filters capable of removing suspended solids these  solids get trapped in tiny pores or stick to the surfaces of  clay flakes. In fact, the commercial distribution of bottled groundwater (“spring water”) has  become a major business worldwide. But dissolved chemicals, and in some cases methane, may make some natural groundwater unusable. For example, groundwater that has passed through salt-containing strata may become salty and unsuitable for irrigation or drinking. Groundwater that has passed through limestone or dolomite contains dissolved calcium (Ca2 ) and magnesium (Mg2 ) ions; this water, called hard water, can be a problem because carbonate minerals precipitate from it to form “scale” that clogs pipes. Also, washing with hard water can be difficult because soap won’t develop a lather. Groundwater that has passed through iron-bearing rocks may contain dissolved iron oxide that precipitates to form rusty stains. Some groundwater contains dissolved hydrogen sulphide, which comes out of solution when the groundwater rises to the surface; hydrogen sulphide is a poisonous gas that has a rotten-egg smell. In recent years, concern has grown about arsenic, a highly toxic chemical that enters groundwater when arsenic-bearing minerals dissolve in groundwater. 

Human-Caused Groundwater Contamination 

Contamination plumes in groundwater.
As we’ve noted, some contaminants in groundwater occur naturally. But in recent decades, contaminants have increasingly been introduced into aquifers because of human activity (figure above a). These contaminants include agricultural waste (pesticides, fertilizers, and animal sewage), industrial waste (dangerous organic and inorganic chemicals), effluent from “sanitary” landfills and septic tanks (including bacteria and viruses), petroleum products and other chemicals that do not  dissolve in water, radioactive waste (from weapons manufacture, power plants, and hospitals), and acids leached from sulfide minerals in coal and metal mines. The cloud of contaminated groundwater that moves away from the source of contamination is called a contaminant plume (figure above b).
The best way to avoid such groundwater contamination is to prevent contaminants from entering groundwater in the first place. This can be done by placing contaminants in sealed containers or on impermeable bedrock so that they are isolated from aquifers. If such a site is not available, the storage area should be lined with plastic or with a thick layer of clay, for the clay not only acts as an aquitard, but it can bond to contaminants. Fortunately, in some cases, natural processes can clean up groundwater contamination. Chemicals may be absorbed by clay, oxygen in the water may oxidize the chemicals, and bacteria in the water may metabolize the chemicals, thereby turning them into harmless substances. 
Where contaminants do make it into an aquifer, environmental engineers drill test wells to determine which way and how fast the contaminant plume is flowing; once they know the flow path, they can close wells in the path to prevent consumption of contaminated water. Engineers may attempt to clean the groundwater by drilling a series of extraction wells to pump it out of the ground. If the contaminated water does not rise fast enough, engineers drill injection wells to force clean water or steam into the ground beneath the contaminant plume (figure above c). The injected fluids then push the contaminated water up into the extraction wells. 
More recently, environmental engineers have begun exploring techniques of bioremediation: injecting oxygen and nutrients into a contaminated aquifer to foster growth of bacteria that can react with and break down molecules of contaminants. Needless to say, cleaning techniques are expensive and generally only partially effective.

Unwanted Effects of Rising Water Tables 

We’ve seen the negative consequences of sinking water tables, but what happens when the water table rises? Is that necessarily good? Sometimes, but not always. If the water table rises above the level of a house’s basement, water seeps through the foundation and floods the basement floor. Catastrophic damage occurs when a rising water table weakens the base of a hillslope or a failure surface underground triggers landslides and slumps. 
Figures credited to Stephen Marshak.

Hot Springs and Geysers

Hot Springs and Geysers

 Geothermal waters and examples of their manifestation in the landscape.
Hot springs, springs that emit water ranging in temperature from about 30° to 104°C, are found in two geologic settings. First, they occur where very deep groundwater, heated in warm bedrock at depth, flows up to the ground surface. This water brings heat with it as it rises. Such hot springs form in places where faults or fractures provide a high-permeability conduit for deep water, or where the water emitted in a discharge region followed a trajectory that first carried it deep into the crust. Second, hot springs develop in geothermal regions, places where volcanism currently takes place or has occurred recently, so that magma and/or very hot rock resides close to the Earth’s surface (figure above a). Hot groundwater dissolves minerals from rock that it passes through because water becomes a more effective solvent when hot, so people use the water emitted at hot springs as relaxing mineral baths (figure above b). Natural pools of geothermal water may become brightly coloured the gaudy greens, blues, and oranges of these pools come from thermophyllic (heat-loving) bacteria and archaea that thrive in hot water and metabolize the sulphur containing minerals dissolved in the groundwater (figure above c). 
Numerous distinctive geologic features form in geothermal regions as a result of the eruption of hot water. In places where the hot water rises into soils rich in volcanic ash and clay, a viscous slurry forms and fills bubbling mud pots. Bubbles of steam rising through the slurry cause it to splatter about in goopy drops. Where geothermal waters spill out of natural springs and then cool, dissolved minerals in the water precipitate, forming colourful mounds or terraces of travertine and other chemical sedimentary rocks (figure above d).
Under special circumstances, geothermal water emerges from the ground in a geyser (from the Icelandic spring, Geysir, and the word for gush), a fountain of steam and hot water that erupts episodically from a vent in the ground (figure above e). To understand why a geyser erupts, we first need a picture of its underground plumbing. Beneath a geyser lies a network of irregular fractures in very hot rock; groundwater sinks and fills these fractures. Heat transfers from the rock to the groundwater and makes the water’s temperature rise. Since the boiling point of water (the temperature at which water vaporizes) increases with increasing pressure, hot groundwater at depth can remain in liquid form even if its temperature has become greater than the boiling point of water at the Earth’s surface. When such “superheated” groundwater begins to rise through a conduit toward the surface, pressure in it decreases until eventually some of the water transforms into steam. The resulting expansion causes water higher up to spill out of the conduit at the ground surface. When this spill happens, pressure in the conduit, from the weight of overlying water, suddenly decreases. A sudden drop in pressure causes the super-hot water at depth to turn into steam instantly, and this steam quickly rises, ejecting all the water and steam above it out of the conduit in a geyser eruption. Once the conduit empties, the eruption ceases, and the conduit fills once again with water that gradually heats up, starting the eruptive cycle all over again. 
Figures credited to Stephen Marshak.

Tapping Groundwater Supplies

Tapping Groundwater Supplies 

We can obtain groundwater at wells or springs. Wells are holes that people dig or drill to obtain water. Springs are natural outlets from which groundwater flows. Wells and springs provide welcome sources of water but must be treated with care if they are to last.


Pumping groundwater at a normal well affects the water table.
In an ordinary well, the base of the well penetrates an aquifer below the water table (figure above a). Water from the pore space in the aquifer seeps into the well and fills it to the level of the water table. Drilling into an aquitard, or into rock that lies above the water table, will not supply water, and thus yields a dry well. Some ordinary wells are seasonal and function only during the rainy season, when the water table rises. During the dry season, the water table lies below the base of the well, so the well is dry.
To obtain water from an ordinary well, you either pull water up in a bucket or pump the water out. As long as the rate at which groundwater fills the well exceeds the rate at which water is removed, the level of the water table near the well remains about the same. However, if users pump water out of the well too fast, then the water table sinks down around the well, in a process called drawdown, so that the water table becomes a downward-pointing, cone-shaped surface called a cone of depression (figure above b, c). Drawdown by a deep well may cause shallower wells that have been drilled nearby to run dry. 

Artesian wells, where water rises from the aquifer without pumping.
An artesian well, named for the province of Artois in France, penetrates confined aquifers in which water is under enough pressure to rise on its own to a level above the surface of the aquifer. If this level lies below the ground surface, the well is a nonflowing artesian well. But if the level lies above the ground surface, the well is a flowing artesian well, and water actively fountains out of the ground (figure above a). Artesian wells occur in special situations where a confined aquifer lies beneath a sloping aquitard. 
We can understand why artesian wells exist if we look first at the configuration of a city water supply (figure above b). Water companies pump water into a high tank that has a significant hydraulic head relative to the surrounding areas. If the water were connected by a water main to a series of vertical pipes, pressure caused by the elevation of the water in the high tank would make the water rise in the pipes until it reached an imaginary surface, called a potentiometric surface, that lies above the ground. This pressure drives water through water mains to household water systems without requiring pumps. In an artesian system, water enters a tilted, confined aquifer that intersects the ground in the hills of a high-elevation recharge area (figure above c). The confined groundwater flows down to the adjacent plains, which lie at a lower elevation. The potentiometric surface to which the water would rise, were it not confined, lies above this aquifer. Pressure in the confined aquifer pushes water up a well.


Many towns were founded next to springs, places where groundwater naturally flows or seeps onto the Earth’s surface, for springs can provide fresh, clear water for drinking or irrigation, without the expense of drilling or digging. Some springs spill water onto dry land. Others bubble up through the bed of a stream or lake. Springs form under a variety of conditions: 

Geological settings in which springs form.
  • Where the ground surface intersects the water table in a discharge area (figure above a); such springs typically occur in valley floors, where they may add water to lakes or streams. 
  • Where flowing groundwater collides with a steep, impermeable barrier, and pressure pushes it up to the ground along the barrier (figure above b). 
  • Where a perched water table intersects the surface of a hill (figure above c).
  • Where downward-percolating water runs into a relatively impermeable layer and migrates along the top surface of the layer to a hillslope (figure above d). 
  • Where a network of interconnected fractures channels groundwater to the surface of a hill (figure above e). 
  • Where the ground surface intersects a natural fracture (joint) that taps a confined aquifer in which the pressure is sufficient to drive the water to the surface; such an occurrence is an artesian spring. 
Springs can provide water in regions that would otherwise be uninhabitable. For example, oases in deserts may develop around a spring. An oasis is a wet area, where plants can grow, in an otherwise bone-dry region.
Figures credited to Stephen Marshak.

Friday, 25 December 2015

Groundwater Flow

Groundwater Flow

What happens to groundwater over time? Does it just sit, unmoving, like the water in a stagnant puddle, or does it flow and eventually find its way back to the surface? Countless measurements confirm that groundwater enjoys the latter fate groundwater indeed flows, and in some cases it moves great distances underground. Let’s examine factors that drive groundwater flow. 
In the unsaturated zone the region between the ground surface and the water table water percolates straight down, like the water passing through a drip coffee maker, for this water moves only in response to the downward pull of gravity. But in the zone of saturation the region below the water table water flow is more complex, for in addition to the downward pull of gravity, water responds to differences in pressure. Pressure can cause groundwater to flow sideways, or even upward. (If you've ever watched water spray from a fountain, you've seen pressure pushing water upward.) Thus, to understand the nature of groundwater flow, we must first understand the origin of pressure in groundwater. For simplicity, we’ll consider only the case of groundwater in an  unconfined aquifer. 

The shape of water table beneath hilly topography.
Pressure in groundwater at a specific point underground is caused by the weight of all the overlying water from that point up to the water table. (The weight of overlying rock does not contribute to the pressure exerted on groundwater, for the contact points between mineral grains bear the rock’s weight.) Thus, a point at a greater depth below the water table feels more pressure than does a point at lesser depth. If the water table is horizontal, the pressure acting on an imaginary horizontal reference plane at a specified depth below the water table is the same everywhere. But if the water table is not horizontal, as shown in above, the pressure at points on a horizontal reference plane at depth changes with location. For example, the pressure acting at point p1, which lies below the hill in figure above, is greater than the pressure acting at point p2, which lies below the valley, even though both p1 and p2 are at the same elevation. 
Both the elevation of a volume of groundwater and the pressure within the water provide energy that, if given the chance, will cause the water to flow. Physicists refer to such stored energy as potential energy. The potential energy available to drive the flow of a given volume of groundwater at a location is called the hydraulic head. To measure the hydraulic head at a point in an aquifer, hydrogeologists drill a vertical hole down to the point and then insert a pipe in the hole. The height above a reference elevation (for example, sea level) to which water rises in the pipe represents the hydraulic head water rises higher in the pipe where the head is higher. As a rule, groundwater flows from regions where it has higher hydraulic head to regions where it has lower hydraulic head. This statement generally implies that groundwater regionally flows from locations where the water table is higher to locations where the water table is lower. 

The flow of groundwater.
Hydrogeologists have calculated how hydraulic head changes with location underground, by taking into account both the effect of gravity and the effect of pressure. These calculations reveal that groundwater flows along concave-up curved paths, as illustrated in cross section (figure above a, b). These curved paths eventually take groundwater from regions where the water table is high (under a hill) to regions where the water table is low (below a valley), but because of flow-path shape, 
some groundwater may flow deep down into the crust along the first part of its path and then may flow back up, toward the ground surface, along the final part of its path. The location where water enters the ground (where the flow direction has a downward trajectory) is called the recharge area, and the location where groundwater flows back up to the surface is called the discharge area (see figure above a). 
Flowing water in an ocean current moves at up to 3 km per hour, and water in a steep river channel can reach speeds of up to 30 km per hour. In contrast, groundwater moves at less than a snail’s pace, between 0.01 and 1.4 m per day (about 4 to 500 m per year). Groundwater moves much more slowly than surface water, for two reasons. First, groundwater moves by percolating through a complex, crooked network of tiny conduits, so it must travel a much greater distance than it would if it could follow a straight path. Second, friction between groundwater and conduit walls slows down the water flow. 
Simplistically, the velocity of groundwater flow depends on the slope of the water table and the permeability of the material through which the groundwater is flowing. Thus, groundwater flows faster through high-permeability rocks than it does through low-permeability rocks, and it flows faster in regions where the water table has a steep slope than it does in regions where the water table has a gentle slope. For example, groundwater flows relatively slowly (2 m per year) through a low-permeability aquifer under the Great Plains, but flows relatively quickly (30 m per year) through a high-permeability aquifer under a steep hillslope. In detail, hydrogeologists use Darcy’s Law to determine flow rates at a location.

Darcy’s Law for Groundwater Flow 

 The level to which water rises in a drill hole is the hydraulic head (h). The hydraulic gradient (HG) is the difference in head divided by the length of the flow path.
The rate at which groundwater flows at a given location depends on the permeability of the material containing the groundwater; groundwater flows faster in a more permeable material than it does in a less permeable material. The rate also depends on the hydraulic gradient, the change in hydraulic head per unit of distance between two locations, as measured along the flow path. 
To calculate the hydraulic gradient, we divide the difference in hydraulic head between two points by the distance between the two points as measured along the flow path. This can be written as a formula:
hydraulic gradient = h1 - h2/j
where h1 - h2 is the difference in head (given in meters or feet, because head can be represented as an elevation) between two points along the water table, and j is the distance between the two points as measured along the flow path. A hydraulic gradient exists anywhere that the water table has a slope. Typically, the slope of the water table is so small that the path length is almost the same as the horizontal distance between two points. So, in general, the hydraulic gradient is roughly equivalent to the slope of the water table. 
In 1856, a French engineer named Henry Darcy carried out a series of experiments designed to characterize factors that control the velocity at which groundwater flows between two locations (1 and 2),  each of which has a different hydraulic head (h1 and h2). Darcy represented the velocity of flow by a quantity called the discharge (Q), meaning the volume of water passing through an imaginary vertical plane perpendicular to the groundwater’s flow path in a given time. He found that the discharge depends on the the hydraulic head (h1- h2); the area (A) of the imaginary plane through which the groundwater is passing; and a number called the hydraulic conductivity  (K). The hydraulic conductivity represents the ease with which a fluid can flow through a material. This, in turn, depends on many factors (such as the viscosity and density of the fluid), but mostly it reflects the permeability of the material. The relationship that Darcy discovered, now known as Darcy’s law, can be written in the form of an equation as:
Q = KA(h1 - h2)/j 
The equation states that if the hydraulic gradient increases, discharge increases, and that as conductivity increases, discharge increases. Put in simpler terms, the flow rate of groundwater increases as the permeability increases and as the slope of the water table gets steeper.
Figures credited to Stephen Marshak.

Where Does Groundwater Reside?

Where does groundwater reside?

Groundwater as we know the drinking water which is pulled out of the ground, where does it comes from?

The Underground Reservoir 

Water moves among various reservoirs during the hydrologic cycle. Of the water that falls on land, some evaporates directly back into the atmosphere, some gets trapped in glaciers, and some becomes runoff that enters a network of streams and lakes that drains to the sea. The remainder sinks or percolates downward, by a process called infiltration, into the ground. In effect, the upper part of the crust behaves like a giant sponge that can soak up water.
Of the water that does infiltrate, some descends only into the soil and wets the surfaces of grains and organic material making up the soil. This water, called soil moisture, later evaporates back into the atmosphere or gets sucked up by the roots of plants and transpires back into the atmosphere. But some water sinks deeper into sediment or rock, and along with water trapped in rock at the time the rock formed, makes up groundwater. Groundwater slowly flows underground for anywhere from a few months to tens of thousands of years before returning to the surface to pass once again into other reservoirs of the hydrologic cycle. 

Porosity: Open Space in Rock and Regolith 

Contrary to popular belief, only a small proportion of underground water occurs in caves. Most groundwater resides in  relatively small open spaces between grains of sediment or between grains of seemingly solid rock, or within cracks of various sizes. The term pore refers to any open space within a volume of sediment, or within a body of rock, and the term porosity refers to the total amount of open space within a material, specified as a percentage. For example, if we say that a block of rock has 30% porosity, then 30% of the block consists of pores. Geologists distinguish between two basic kinds of porosity primary and secondary.

Porosity is the open space in rock or sediment, whereas permeability is the degree to which the pores are connected.
Primary porosity develops during sediment deposition and during rock formation (figure above a,b). It includes the pores between clastic grains that exist because the grains don’t fit together tightly during deposition. Secondary porosity refers to new pore space produced in rocks some time after the rock first formed. For example, when rocks fracture, the opposing walls of the fracture do not fit together tightly, so narrow spaces remain in between. Thus, joints and faults may provide secondary porosity for water (figure above c). As groundwater passes through rock, it may dissolve and remove some minerals, creating solution cavities that also provide secondary porosity.

Permeability: The Ease of Flow 

If solid rock completely surrounds a pore, the water in the pore cannot flow to another location. For groundwater to flow, pores must be linked by conduits (openings). The ability of a material to allow fluids to pass through an interconnected network of pores is a characteristic known as permeability. Groundwater flows easily through a material, such as loose gravel, that has high permeability. In gravel, the water is able to pass quickly from pore to pore, so if you pour water into a gravel-filled jar, it will trickle down to the bottom of the jar, where it displaces air and fills the pores (figure above d). In tightly packed sediments or in rock, the water flows more slowly because it follows a tortuous path through tiny conduits. Water flows slowly or not at all through an impermeable material. Put another way, an impermeable material has low permeability or even no permeability. The permeability of a material depends on several factors:
  • Number of available conduits: As the number of conduits increases, permeability increases. 
  • Size of the conduits: More fluids can travel through wider conduits than through narrower ones. 
  • Straightness of the conduits: Water flows more rapidly through straight conduits than it does through crooked ones. 
Note that the factors that control permeability in rock or sediment resemble those that control the ease with which traffic moves through a city. Traffic can flow quickly through cities with many straight, multilane boulevards, whereas it flows slowly through cities with only a few narrow, crooked streets. Porosity and permeability are not the same feature. A material whose pores are isolated from each other can have high porosity but low permeability. 

Aquifers and Aquitards 

Water in the ground-aquifers, aquitards and the water table.
With the concept of permeability in mind, hydrogeologists distinguish between an aquifer, sediment or rock with high permeability and porosity, and an aquitard, sediment or rock that does not transmit water easily and therefore retards the motion of water. An aquifer that is not overlain by an aquitard is an unconfined aquifer. Water can infiltrate down into an unconfined aquifer from the Earth’s surface, and groundwater can rise to reach the Earth’s surface from an unconfined aquifer. An aquifer that is overlain by an aquitard is a confined aquifer its water is isolated from the ground surface (figure above a).

The Water Table 

Infiltrating water can enter permeable sediment and bedrock by percolating along cracks and through conduits connecting pores. Nearer the ground surface, water only partially fills pores, leaving some space that remains filled with air (figure above b). The region of the subsurface in which water only partially fills pores is called the unsaturated zone. Deeper down, water completely fills, or saturates, the pores. This region is the saturated zone. In a strict sense, geologists use the term “groundwater” specifically for subsurface water in the saturated zone, where water completely fills pores. 
The term water table refers to the horizon that separates the unsaturated zone above from the saturated zone below. Typically, surface tension, the electrostatic attraction of water molecules to each other and to mineral surfaces, causes water to seep up from the water table (just as water rises in a thin straw), filling pores in the capillary fringe, a thin layer at the base of the unsaturated zone. Note that the water table forms the top boundary of groundwater in an unconfined aquifer. 
The depth of the water table in the subsurface varies greatly with location. In some places, the water table defines the surface of a permanent stream, lake, or marsh, and thus effectively lies above the ground level (figure above c). Elsewhere, the water table lies hidden below the ground surface. In humid regions, it typically lies within a few meters of the surface, whereas in arid regions, it may lie hundreds of meters below the surface. Rainfall rates affect the water table depth in a given locality  (figure above d) the water table drops during the dry season and rises during the wet season. Streams or ponds that hold water during the wet season may, therefore, dry up during the dry season because their water infiltrates into the ground below.

Topography of the Water Table 

Factors that influence the position of the groundwater.
In hilly regions, if the subsurface has relatively low permeability, the water table is not a planar surface. Rather, its shape mimics, in a subdued way, the shape of the overlying topography (figure above a). This means that the water table lies at a higher elevation beneath hills than it does beneath valleys. But the relief (the vertical distance between the highest and lowest elevations) of the water table is not as great as that of the overlying land, so the surface of the water table tends to be smoother than that of the landscape. 
At first thought, it may seem surprising that the elevation of the water table varies as a consequence of ground-surface topography. After all, when you pour a bucket of water into a pond, the surface of the pond immediately adjusts to remain horizontal. The elevation of the water table varies because groundwater moves so slowly through rock and sediment that it cannot quickly assume a horizontal surface. When rain falls on a hill and water infiltrates down to the water table, the water table rises a little. When it doesn't rain, the water table sinks slowly, but so slowly that when rain falls again, the water table rises before it has had time to sink very far. 
k (such as shale) may lie within a thick aquifer. A mound of groundwater accumulates above such aquitard lenses. The result is a perched water table, a groundwater top surface that lies above the regional water table because the underlying lens of impermeable rock or sediment prevents the groundwater from sinking down to the regional water table (figure above b).
Figures credited to Stephen Marshak.

Sunday, 20 December 2015

Coastal Problems and Solutions

Coastal Problems and Solutions

Contemporary Sea-Level Changes 

 Future sea-level rise, due to melting of polar ice, would flood many coastal cities.
People tend to view a shoreline as a permanent entity. But in fact, shorelines are ephemeral geologic features. On a time scale of hundreds to thousands of years, a shoreline moves inland or seaward depending on whether relative sea level rises or falls or whether sediment supply increases or decreases. In places where sea level is rising today, shoreline towns will eventually be submerged. For example, the Persian Gulf now covers about twice the area that it did 4,000 years ago. And if present rates of sea-level rise along the East Coast of the United States continue, major coastal cities such as Washington, New York, Miami, and Philadelphia may be inundated within the next millennium (figure above).

Beach Destruction-Beach Protection?

Examples of beach erosion.
In a matter of hours, a storm especially a hurricane can radically alter a landscape that took centuries or millennia to form. The backwash of storm waves sweeps vast quantities of sand seaward, leaving the beach a skeleton of its former self. The surf submerges barrier islands and shifts them toward the lagoon. Waves and wind together rip out mangrove swamps and salt marshes and break up coral reefs, thereby destroying the organic buffer that can protect a coast, leaving it vulnerable to erosion for years to come. Of course, major storms also destroy human constructions: erosion undermines shore-side buildings, causing them to collapse into the sea; wave impacts smash buildings to bits; and the storm surge very high water levels created when storm winds push water toward the shore floats buildings off their foundations (figure above a, b).
But even less-dramatic events, such as the loss of river sediment, a gradual rise in sea level, a change in the shape of a shoreline, or the destruction of coastal vegetation, can alter the balance between sediment accumulation and sediment removal on a beach, leading to beach erosion. In some places, beaches retreat landward at rates of 1 to 2 m per year. 

Techniques used to preserve beaches.
In many parts of the world, beach front property has great value; but if a hotel loses its beach sand, it probably won’t stay in business. Similarly, a harbour can’t function if its mouth gets blocked by sediment. Thus property owners often construct artificial barriers to alter the natural movement of sand along the coast, sometimes with undesirable results. For example, beach-front property owners may build groins, concrete or stone walls protruding perpendicular to the shore, to prevent beach drift from removing sand (figure above a). Sand accumulates on the up-drift side of the groin, forming a long triangular wedge, but sand erodes away on the down-drift side. Needless to say, the property owner on the down-drift side doesn't appreciate this process. Harbour engineers may build a pair of walls called jetties to protect the entrance to a harbour (figure above b). But jetties erected at the mouth of a river channel effectively extend the river into deeper water and thus may lead to the deposition of an offshore sandbar. Engineers may also build an offshore wall called a breakwater, parallel or at an angle to the beach, to prevent the full force of waves from reaching a harbour. With time, however, sand builds up in the lee of the breakwater and the beach grows seaward, clogging the harbor (figure above c). To protect expensive shore side construction, people build seawalls out of riprap (large stone or concrete blocks) or reinforced concrete on the landward side of the beach (figure above d), but during a storm, these can be undermined. 
In some places, people have given up trying to decrease the rate of beach erosion and instead have worked to increase the rate of sediment supply. To do this, they pump sand from farther offshore, or truck in sand from elsewhere to replenish a beach. This procedure, called beach nourishment, can be hugely expensive and at best provides only a temporary fix, for the backwash and beach drift that removed the sand in the first place continue unabated as long as the wind blows and the waves break.

Destruction of Wetlands and Reefs 

Bad cases of beach pollution create headlines. Because of beach drift, garbage dumped in the sea in an urban area may drift along the shore and be deposited on a tourist beach far from its point of introduction. Oil spills, from ships that flush their bilges or from tankers that have run aground or foundered in stormy seas, or from offshore well leaks, have contaminated shorelines at several places around the world. 
The influx of nutrients, from sewage and agricultural run-off, into coastal waters can create dead zones along coasts. A dead zone is a region in which water contains so little oxygen that fish and other organisms within it die. Dead zones form when the concentration of nutrients rises enough to stimulate an algae bloom, for overnight respiration by algae depletes dissolved oxygen in the water, and the eventual death and decay of plankton depletes oxygen even more. One of the world’s largest dead zones occurs in the Gulf of Mexico, offshore of the Mississippi River’s mouth. 
Coastal wetlands and coral reefs are particularly susceptible to changes in the environment, and many of them have been destroyed in recent decades. Their loss both increases a coast’s vulnerability to erosion and, because they provide spawning grounds for marine organisms, disrupts the global food chain. Destruction of wetlands and reefs happens for many reasons. Wetlands have been filled or drained to be converted to farmland, housing developments, resorts, or garbage dumps. Reefs have been destroyed by boat anchors, dredging, the activities of divers, dynamite explosions intended to kill fish, and quarrying operations intended to obtain construction materials. Chemicals and particulates entering coastal water from urban, industrial, and agricultural areas can cause havoc in wetlands and reefs, for these materials cloud water and/or trigger algal blooms, killing filter-feeding organisms. Toxic chemicals in such run-off can also poison plankton and burrowing organisms and, therefore, other organisms progressively up the food chain. 
Global climate change also impacts the health of organic coasts. For example, transformation of once vegetated regions into deserts means that the amount of dust carried by winds from the land to the sea has increased. This dust can interfere with coral respiration and can bring dangerous viruses. A global increase in seawater temperature may be contributing to reef bleaching, the loss of coral colour due to the death of the algae that live in coral polyps. The statistics of wetland and reef destruction worldwide are frightening ecologists estimate that between 20% and 70% of wetlands have already been destroyed, and along some coasts, 90% of reefs have died.

Hurricanes-A Coastal Calamity 

Characteristics and paths of hurricanes in the western North Atlantic.
Global-scale convection of the atmosphere, influenced by the Coriolis effect, causes currents of warm air to flow steadily from east to west in tropical latitudes. As the air flows over the ocean, it absorbs moisture. Because air becomes less dense as it gets warmer, tropical air eventually begins to rise like a balloon. As the air rises, it cools, and the water vapour it contains condenses to form clouds (mists of very tiny water droplets). If the air contains sufficient moisture, the clouds grow into a cluster of large thunderstorms, which consolidate to form a single, very large storm. Because of the Coriolis effect, this large storm evolves into a rotating swirl called a tropical disturbance. If the disturbance remains over warm ocean water, as can happen in late summer and early fall, rising warm moist air continues to feed the storm, fostering more growth. Eventually a spiral of rapidly circulating clouds forms, and the tropical disturbance becomes a tropical depression. Additional nourishment causes the tropical depression to spin even faster and grow broader, until it becomes a tropical storm and receives a name. If a tropical storm becomes powerful enough, it becomes a tropical cyclone. Formally defined, a tropical cyclone is a huge rotating storm, which forms in tropical latitudes, and in which winds exceed 119 km per hour (74 mph). It resembles a giant counter-clockwise spiral of clouds 300 to 1,500 km (930 miles) wide when viewed from space (figure above a). Such a storm is called a hurricane in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific, a typhoon in the western Pacific, and simply a cyclone around Australia and in the Indian Ocean. 
Atlantic hurricanes generally form in the ocean to the east of the Caribbean Sea, though some form in the Caribbean itself. They first drift westward at speeds of up to 60 km per hour (37 mph). They may eventually turn north and head into the North Atlantic or into the interior of North America, where they die when they run out of a supply of warm water (figure above b). Weather researchers classify the strength of hurricanes using the Saffir-Simpson scale, which runs from 1 to 5; somewhat different scales are used for typhoons and cyclones. On the Saffir-Simpson scale, a Category 5 hurricane has sustained winds of >250 km/hr (>156 mph). The highest wind speed ever recorded during a hurricane was in excess of 300 km/hr. 
A typical hurricane (or typhoon or cyclone) consists of several spiral arms extending inward to a central zone of relative calm known as the hurricane’s eye (figure above c). A rotating vertical cylinder of clouds, the eye wall, surrounds the eye. Winds spiral toward the eye, so like an ice skater who spins faster when she brings her arms inward, the winds accelerate toward the interior of the storm and are fastest along the eye wall. Thus, hurricane-force winds affect a belt that is only 15% to 35% as wide as the whole storm (figure above d). On the side of the eye where winds blow in the same direction as the whole storm is moving, the ground speed of winds is greatest, because the storm’s overall speed adds to the rotational motion.
Hurricanes pose extreme danger in the open ocean, because their winds cause huge waves to build, and thus have led to the foundering of countless ships. They also cause havoc in coastal regions, and even inland, though they die out rapidly after moving onshore. The coastal damage happens for several reasons: 
  • Wind: Winds of weaker hurricanes tear off branches and smash windows. Stronger hurricanes uproot trees, rip off roofs, and collapse walls. 
  • Waves: Winds shearing across the sea surface during a hurricane generate huge waves. In the open ocean, these waves can 
  • capsize ships. Near shore, waves batter and erode beaches, rip boats from moorings, and destroy coastal property. 5 Storm surge: Rising air in a hurricane causes a region of extremely low air pressure beneath. This decrease in pressure causes the surface of the sea to bulge upward over an area with a diameter of 60 to 80 km. Sustained winds blowing in an onshore direction build this bulge even higher. When the hurricane reaches the coast, the bulge of water, or storm surge, swamps the land. If the bulge hits the land at high tide, the sea surface will be especially high and will affect a broader area. 
  • Rain, stream flooding, and landslides: Rain drenches the Earth’s surface beneath a hurricane. In places, half a meter or more of rain falls in a single day. Rain causes streams to flood, even far inland, and can trigger landslides. 
  • Disruption of social structure: When the storm passes, the hazard is not over. By disrupting transportation and communication networks, breaking water mains, and washing away sewage-treatment plants, hurricane damage creates severe obstacles to search and rescue, and can lead to the spread of disease, fire, and looting. 
Nearly all hurricanes that reach the coast cause death and destruction, but some are truly catastrophic. Storm surge from a 1970 cyclone making landfall on the low-lying delta lands of Bangladesh led to an estimated 500,000 deaths. In 1992, Hurricane Andrew leveled extensive areas of southern Florida, causing over $30 billion in damage and leaving 250,000 people homeless. Hurricane Katrina, in 2005, stands as the most destructive hurricane to strike the United States. Let’s look at this storm’s history. 

Hurricane Katrina

The devastation of coastal areas by Hurricane Katrina.
Tropical Storm Katrina came into existence over the Bahamas and headed west. Just before landfall in southeastern Florida, winds strengthened and the storm became Hurricane Katrina. This hurricane sliced across the southern tip of Florida, causing several deaths and millions of dollars in damage. It then entered the Gulf of Mexico and passed directly over the Loop Current, an eddy of summer-heated water from the Caribbean that had entered the Gulf of Mexico. Water in the Loop Current reaches temperatures of 32C (90F), and thus stoked the storm, injecting it with a burst of energy sufficient for the storm to morph into a Category 5 monster whose swath of hurricane-force winds reached a width of  325 km (200 miles). When it entered the central Gulf of Mexico, Katrina turned north and began to bear down on the Louisiana-Mississippi coast. The eye of the storm passed just east of New Orleans, and then across the coast of Mississippi. Storm surges broke records, in places rising 7.5 m (25 feet) above sea level, and they washed coastal communities off the map along a broad swath of the Gulf Coast (figure above a, b). In addition to the devastating wind and surge damage, Katrina led to the drowning of New Orleans. 
To understand what happened to New Orleans, we must consider the city’s geologic history. New Orleans grew on the Mississippi Delta, between the banks of the Mississippi River on the south and Lake Pontchartrain (actually a bay of the Gulf of Mexico) on the north. The older parts of the town grew up on the relatively high land of the Mississippi’s natural levee. Younger parts of the city, however, spread out over the topographically lower delta plain. As decades passed, people modified the surrounding delta landscape by draining wetlands, by constructing artificial levees that confined the Mississippi River, and by extracting groundwater. Sediment beneath the delta compacted, and the delta’s surface has been starved of new sediment, so large areas of the delta sank below sea level. Today, most of New Orleans lies in a bowl-shaped depression as much as 2 m (7 feet) below sea level the hazard implicit in this situation had been recognized for years (figure above c). 
The winds of Hurricane Katrina ripped off roofs, toppled trees, smashed windows, and triggered the collapse of weaker buildings, but their direct consequences were not catastrophic. However, when the winds blew storm surge into Lake Pontchartrain, its water level rose beyond most expectations and pressed against the system of artificial levees and flood walls that had been built to protect New Orleans. Hours after the hurricane 
eye had passed, the high water of Lake Pontchartrain found a weakness along the floodwall bordering a drainage canal and pushed out a section. Breaks eventually formed in a few other locations as well. So, a day after the hurricane was over, New Orleans began to flood. As the water line climbed the walls of houses, brick by brick, residents fled first upstairs, then to their attics, and finally to their roofs. Water spread across the city until the bowl of New Orleans filled to the same level as Lake Pontchartrain, submerging 80% of the city (figure above d).
Floodwaters washed some houses away and filled others with debris (figure above e). The disaster took on national significance, as the trapped population sweltered without food, drinking water, or adequate shelter. With no communications, no hospitals, and few police, the city almost descended into anarchy. It took days for outside relief to reach the city, and by then, many had died and parts of New Orleans, a cultural landmark and major port, had become uninhabitable.
Figures credited to Stephen Marshak.

Friday, 18 December 2015

Causes of Coastal Variability

Causes of Coastal Variability 

Coastal variability depends upon following factors.

Plate Tectonic Setting 

The tectonic setting of a coast plays a role in determining whether the coast has steep-sided mountain slopes or a broad plain that borders the sea. Along an active margin, compression squeezes the crust and pushes it up, creating mountains like the Andes along the western coast of South America. Along a passive margin, the cooling and sinking of the lithosphere may create a broad coastal plain, a flatland that merges with the continental shelf, as exists along the Gulf Coast and south-eastern Atlantic coast of the United States. 
Not all passive margins have coastal plains. The coastal areas of some passive margins were uplifted during the rifting event that preceded establishment of the passive margin. For example, highlands formed during rifting border the Red Sea and portions of the Brazilian and southern African coasts. Highlands also rise along the east coast of Australia.

Relative Sea-Level Changes 

Because of sea-level drop during the ice age, there was more dry land.
Sea level, relative to the land surface, changes during geologic time. Some changes develop due to vertical movement of the land. These may reflect plate-tectonic processes or the addition or removal of a load (such as a glacier) on the crust. Local changes in sea level may reflect human activity when people pump out groundwater or oil, for example, the pores between grains in the sediment beneath the ground collapse, and the land surface sinks. Some relative sea-level changes, however, are due to a global rise or fall of the ocean surface. Such eustatic sea-level changes may reflect changes in the volume of mid-ocean ridges. An increase in the number or width of ridges, for example, displaces water and causes sea level to rise. Eustatic sea-level changes may also reflect changes in the volume of glaciers, for glaciers store water on land (figure above). As glaciers grow, sea level falls, and as glaciers shrink, sea level rises. 

Features of emergent coastlines (relative sea level is falling) and submergent coastlines (relative sea level is rising).
Geologists refer to coasts where the land is rising or rose relative to sea level as emergent coasts. At emergent coasts, steep slopes typically border the shore. A series of step-like terraces form along some emergent coasts (figure above a). These terraces reflect episodic changes in relative sea level and/or ground uplift. Those coasts at which the land sinks relative to sea level become submergent coasts (figure above b). At submergent coasts, landforms include estuaries and fjords that  developed when the rising sea flooded coastal valleys. 

Sediment Supply and Climate 

The quantity and character of sediment supplied to a shore affects its character. That is, coastlines where the sea washes sediment away faster than it can be supplied (erosional coasts) recede landward and may become rocky, whereas coastlines that receive more sediment than erodes away (accretionary coasts) grow seaward and develop broad beaches. 
Climate also affects the character of a coast. Shores that enjoy generally calm weather erode less rapidly than those constantly subjected to ravaging storms. A sediment supply large enough to generate an accretionary coast in a calm environment may be insufficient to prevent the development of an erosional coast in a stormy environment. The climate also affects biological activity along coasts. For example, in the warm water of tropical climates, mangrove swamps flourish along the shore, and coral reefs form offshore. The reefs may build into a broad carbonate platform such as appears in the Bahamas today. In cooler climates, salt marshes develop, whereas in arctic regions, the coast may be a stark environment of lichen-covered rock and barren sediment.

Coastal Landforms

Where Land Meets Sea: Coastal Landforms

Tourists along the Amalfi coast of Italy thrill to the sound of waves crashing on rocky shores. But in the Virgin Islands sunbathers can find seemingly endless white sand beaches, and along the Mississippi delta, vast swamps border the sea. Large, dome-like mountains rise directly from the sea in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, but a 100-m-high vertical cliff marks the boundary between the Nullarbor Plain of southern Australia and the Great Southern Ocean. As these examples illustrate, coasts, the belts of land bordering the sea, vary dramatically in terms of topography and associated landforms. 

Beaches and Tidal Flats 

Characteristics of beach, barrier islands and tidal flats.
For millions of vacationers, the ideal holiday includes a trip to a beach, a gently sloping fringe of sediment along the shore. Some beaches consist of pebbles or boulders, whereas others consist of sand grains (figure above a, b). This is no accident, for waves winnow out finer sediment like silt and clay and carry it to quieter water, where it settles. Storm waves, which can smash cobbles against one another with enough force to shatter them, have little effect on sand, for sand grains can’t collide with enough energy to crack. Thus, cobble beaches exist only where nearby cliffs supply large rock fragments. 
The composition of sand varies from beach to beach because different sands come from different sources. Sands derived from the weathering and erosion of silicic-to- intermediate rocks consist mainly of quartz; other minerals in  these rocks chemically weather to form clay, which washes away  in waves. Beaches made from the erosion of limestone, or of  coral reefs and shells, consist of carbonate sand, including masses of sand-sized chips of shells. And beaches derived from  the erosion of basalt boast black sand, made of tiny basalt grains.
A beach profile, a cross section drawn perpendicular to the shore, illustrates the shape of a beach (figure above c). Starting from the sea and moving landward, a beach consists of a foreshore zone, or intertidal zone, across which the tide rises and falls. The beach face, a steeper, concave-up part of the foreshore zone, forms where the swash of the waves actively scours the sand. The backshore zone extends from a small step, cut by high-tide swash to the front of the dunes or cliffs that lie farther inshore. The backshore zone includes one or more berms, horizontal to landward-sloping terraces that receive sediment only during a storm. 
Geologists commonly refer to beaches as “rivers of sand,” to emphasize that beach sand moves along the coast over time it is not a permanent substrate. Wave action at the shore moves an active sand layer on the sea floor on a daily basis. Inactive sand, buried below this layer, moves only during severe storms or not at all. Longshore drift, discussed earlier, can transport sand hundreds of kilometres along a coast in a matter of centuries. Where the coastline indents landward, beach drift stretches beaches out into open water to create a sand spit. Some sand spits grow across the opening of a bay, to form a baymouth bar (figure above d). 
The scouring action of waves sometimes piles sand up in a narrow ridge away from the shore called an offshore bar, which parallels the shoreline. In regions with an abundant sand supply, offshore bars rise above the mean high-water level and become barrier islands (figure above e), and the water between a barrier island and the mainland becomes a quiet-water lagoon, a body of shallow seawater separated from the open ocean. Though developers have covered some barrier islands with expensive resorts, in the time frame of centuries to millennia, barrier islands are temporary features and may wash away in a storm.
Tidal flats, regions of clay and silt exposed or nearly exposed at low tide but totally submerged at high tide, develop in regions protected from strong wave action (figure above f). They are typically found along the margins of lagoons or on shores protected by barrier islands. Here, sediments accumulate to form thick, sticky layers. 

Rocky Coasts 

Erosion landforms of rocky shorelines.
More than one ship has met its end, smashed and splintered in the spray and thunderous surf of a rocky coast, where bedrock cliffs rise directly from the sea. Lacking the protection of a beach, rocky coasts feel the full impact of ocean breakers. The water pressure generated during the impact of a breaker can pick up boulders and smash them together until they shatter, and it can squeeze air into cracks, creating enough force to push rocks apart. Further, because of its turbulence, the water hitting a cliff face carries suspended sand and thus can abrade the cliff. The combined effects of shattering, wedging, and abrading, together called wave erosion, gradually undercut a cliff face and make a wave-cut notch (figure above a). Undercutting continues until the overhang becomes unstable and breaks away at a joint, creating a pile of rubble at the base of the cliff that waves immediately attack and break up. In this process, wave erosion cuts away at a rocky coast, so that the cliff gradually migrates inland. Such cliff retreat may leave behind a wave-cut bench, or platform, that becomes visible at low tide (figure above b). 
Other processes besides wave erosion break up the rocks along coasts. For example, salt spray coats the cliff face above the waves and infiltrates into pores. When the water evaporates, salt crystals grow and push apart the grains, thereby weakening the rock. Biological processes also contribute to erosion, for plants and animals in the intertidal zone bore into the rocks and gradually break them up. 
Many rocky coasts are irregular with headlands protruding into the sea and embayments set back from the sea. Wave energy focuses on headlands and disperses in embayments, a result of wave refraction. The resulting erosion removes debris at headlands, and sediment accumulates in embayments (figure above c). In some cases, a headland erodes in stages (figure above d). Because of refraction, waves curve and attack the sides of a headland, slowly eating through it to create a sea arch connected to the mainland by a narrow bridge. Eventually the arch collapses, leaving isolated sea stacks just offshore (figure above d). Once formed, a sea stack protects the adjacent shore from waves. Therefore, sand may collect in the lee of the stack, slowly building a tombolo, a narrow ridge of sand that links the sea stack to the mainland.


The Chesapeake Bay estuary formed when the sea flooded river valleys. The region is sinking relative to other coast areas because it overlies a buried meteor crater.
Along some coastlines, a relative rise in sea level causes the sea to flood river valleys that merge with the coast, resulting in estuaries, where seawater and river water mix. You can recognize an estuary on a map by the dendritic pattern of its river-carved coastline (figure above). Oceanic and fluvial waters interact in two ways within an estuary. In quiet estuaries, protected from wave action or river turbulence, the water becomes stratified, with denser oceanic salt water flowing upstream as a wedge beneath less-dense fluvial freshwater.  In turbulent estuaries, oceanic and fluvial water combine to create nutrient-rich brackish water with a salinity between that of oceans and rivers. Estuaries are complex ecosystems inhabited by unique species of shrimp, clams, oysters, worms, and fish that can tolerate large changes in salinity.


Fjord landscapes form where relative sea-level rise drowns glacially carved valleys.
During the last ice age, glaciers carved deep valleys in coastal mountain ranges. When the ice age came to a close, the glaciers melted away, leaving deep, U-shaped valleys. The water stored in the glaciers, along with the water within the vast ice sheets that covered continents during the ice age, flowed back into the sea and caused sea level to rise. The rising sea filled the deep valleys, creating fjords, or flooded glacial valleys. Coastal fjords are fingers of the sea surrounded by mountains; because of their deep-blue water and steep walls of polished rock, they are distinctively beautiful (figure above).

Coastal Wetlands 

Examples of coastal wetlands.
A flat-lying coastal area that floods during high tide and drains during low tide, but does not get pummeled by intense waves, can host salt-resistant plants and evolve into a coastal wetland. Wetland-dominated shorelines are sometimes called “organic coasts.” Researchers distinguish among different types of coastal wetlands based on the plants they host. Examples include swamps (dominated by trees), marshes (dominated by grasses; figure above a), and bogs (dominated by moss and shrubs). So many marine species spawn in wetlands that as a whole, wetlands account for 10% to 30% of marine organic productivity. 
In tropical or semitropical climates (between 30 north and 30 south of the equator), mangrove trees may become the dominant plant in swamps (figure above b). Some mangrove species form a broad network of roots above the water surface, making the plant look like an octopus standing on its tentacles, and some send up small protrusions from roots that rise above the water and allow the plant to breathe. Dense mangrove swamps counter the effects of stormy weather and thus prevent coastal erosion.

Coral Reefs 

The character and evolution of coral reefs.
Along the azure coasts of Hawaii, visitors swim through colorful growths of living coral. Some corals look like brains, others like elk antlers, still others like delicate fans (figure above a). Sea anemones, sponges, and clams grow on and around the coral. Though at first glance coral looks like a plant, it is actually a colony of tiny invertebrates related to jellyfish. An individual coral animal, or polyp, has a tubelike body with a head of tentacles. 
Coral polyps secrete calcite shells, which gradually build into a mound of solid limestone whose top surface lies from just below the low-tide level down to a depth of about 60 m. At any given time, only the surface of the mound lives the mound’s interior consists of shells from previous generations of coral. The realm of shallow water underlain by coral mounds, associated organisms, and debris comprises a coral reef. Reefs absorb wave energy and thus serve as a living buffer zone that protects coasts from erosion. Corals need clear, well-lit, warm (18–30C) water with normal oceanic salinity, so coral reefs grow only along clean coasts at latitudes of less than about 30 (figure above b). 
Marine geologists distinguish three different kinds of coral reef, on the basis of their geometry (figure above c). A fringing reef forms directly along the coast, a barrier reef develops offshore, and an atoll makes a circular ring surrounding a lagoon. As Charles Darwin first recognized back in 1859, coral reefs associated with islands in the Pacific start out as fringing reefs and then later become barrier reefs and finally atolls. This progression reflects the continued growth of the reef as the island around which it formed gradually sinks. Eventually, the reef itself sinks too far below sea level to remain alive and becomes the cap of a flat-topped seamount known as a guyot.

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

Ocean waters and currents

Ocean waters and currents

Ocean waters and currents depends upon lots of things as below.

Composition and Temperature 

If you've ever had a chance to swim in the ocean, you may have noticed that you float much more easily in ocean water than you do in freshwater. That’s because ocean water contains an average of 3.5% dissolved salt; in contrast, typical freshwater contains less than 0.02% salt. The dissolved ions fit between water molecules without changing the volume of the water, so adding salt to water increases the water’s density, and you float higher in a denser liquid. 
There’s so much salt in the ocean that if all the water suddenly evaporated, a 60-m-thick layer of salt would coat the ocean floor. This layer would consist of about 75% halite (NaCl) with lesser amounts of gypsum (CaSO4s(2O), anhydrite (CaSO4), and other salts. Oceanographers refer to the concentration of salt in water as salinity. Although ocean salinity averages 3.5%, measurements from around the world demonstrate that salinity varies with location, ranging from about 1.0% to about 4.1%. Salinity reflects the balance between the addition of freshwater by rivers or rain and the removal of freshwater by evaporation, for when seawater evaporates, salt stays behind; salinity also depends on water temperature, for warmer water can hold more salt in solution than can cold water. 
When the Titanic sank after striking an iceberg in the North Atlantic, most of the unlucky passengers and crew who jumped or fell into the sea died within minutes because the seawater temperature at the site of the tragedy approached freezing, and cold water removes heat from a body very rapidly. Yet swimmers can play for hours in the Caribbean, where sea-surface temperatures reach 28C (83F). Though the average global sea-surface temperature hovers around 17C, it ranges between freezing near the poles to almost 35C in restricted tropical seas. The correlation of average temperature with latitude exists because the intensity of solar radiation varies with latitude. 
Water temperature in the ocean varies markedly with depth. Waters warmed by the Sun are less dense and tend to remain at the surface. An abrupt thermocline below which water temperatures decrease sharply, reaching near freezing at the sea floor appears at a depth of about 300 m in the tropics. There is no pronounced thermocline in polar seas, since surface waters there are already so cold.

The Coriolis Effect 

Imagine that you have a huge cannon aim it due south and fire a projectile from the North Pole to a target on the equator (figure below a). If the Earth were standing still, the shot would follow a line of longitude. But the Earth isn't standing still. It rotates counter-clockwise around its “axis” (an imaginary line that passes through the planet’s centre and its geographic poles). To an observer in space, an object at the pole doesn't move at all as the Earth spins because it is sitting on the axis, but an object  at the equator moves at about 1,665 km/h (1,035 mph). Because of this difference, the target on the equator will have moved by the time the projectile reaches it. In fact, to an observer standing on the Earth and moving with it, the projectile follows a curving trajectory. The same phenomenon happens if you place the cannon on the equator and fire the projectile due north (figure below b)the projectile’s path curves because the projectile moves eastwards progressively faster than the land beneath while moving north. (The same phenomenon, of course, happens in the southern hemisphere, but in reverse.) This behaviour is called the Coriolis effect, after the French engineer who, in 1835, described its consequences. Because of the Coriolis effect, north-flowing currents in the northern hemisphere deflect to the east, and south flowing currents deflect to the west.

The Coriolis effect because the velocity of a point at the equator, in the direction of the Earth's spin, is greater than that of a point near the poles.

Currents: Rivers in the Sea 

Since first setting sail on the open ocean, people have known that the water of the ocean does not stand still, but rather flows or circulates at velocities of up to several kilometers per hour in fairly well-defined streams called currents. Oceanographic studies demonstrate that circulation in the sea occurs at two levels: surface currents affect the upper hundred meters of water, and deep currents keep the remainder of the water column in motion. 

 The major surface currents of the world’s oceans.
Surface currents occur in all the world’s oceans (figure above). They result from interaction between the sea surface and the wind as moving air molecules shear across the surface of the water, the friction between air and water drags the water along with it. The Earth’s rotation, however, generates the Coriolis effect, a phenomenon that causes surface currents in the northern hemisphere to veer toward the right and surface currents in the southern hemisphere to veer toward the left of the average wind direction.  Across the width of an ocean, the Coriolis effect causes surface currents to make a complete loop, known as a gyre. Surface water may become trapped for a long time in the centre of the gyre, where currents hardly exist, so these regions tend to accumulate floating plastics, sludge, and seaweed. The “Sargasso Sea,” named for a kind of floating seaweed, lies at the centre of the North Atlantic gyre, and the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch,” an accumulation of floating plastic and trash, lies at the centre of the North Pacific gyre. Figure above is a simplification of currents interactions of currents with coastlines create chains of eddies, in which water circulates in small loops (figure below a–c).

 The complexity of the ocean’s currents. An animation by NASA, based on data collected over a two-year period, shows the details of eddies and swirls in the ocean, and emphasizes that currents interact with the coasts.
Surface water and deeper water in the ocean exchange at a number of locations. Specifically, in downwelling zones, surface water sinks, and in upwelling zones, deeper water rises. Downwelling and upwelling occur for a number of reasons. For example, in places where winds blow surface water shoreward, an oversupply of water develops along the coast, so surface water must sink to make room. And where winds blow surface water away from the shore, a deficit of water develops along the coast, so deeper water must rise to fill the gap. Upwelling of deeper water also occurs near the equator, where winds blow steadily from east to west, because the Coriolis effect deflects surface currents to the right in the northern hemisphere and to the left in the southern hemisphere, thereby leading to the development of a water deficit along the equator. The resulting rise of cool, nutrient-rich water fosters an abundance of life in equatorial water. 

Global-scale upwelling and downwelling of ocean currents.
Contrasts in water density, caused by differences in temperature and salinity, can also drive upwelling and downwelling. We refer to the rising and sinking of water driven by such density contrasts as thermohaline circulation. During thermohaline circulation, denser (cold and/or saltier) water sinks, whereas water that is less dense (warm and/or less salty) rises. As a result, the cold water in polar regions sinks and flows back along the bottom of the ocean toward the equator. This process divides the ocean vertically into a number of distinct water masses, which mix only very slowly with one another. In the Atlantic Ocean, for example, the Antarctic Bottom Water sinks along the coast of Antarctica, and the North Atlantic Deep Water sinks in the north polar region (figure above a). The combination of surface currents and thermohaline circulation, like a conveyor belt, moves water and heat among the various ocean basins and moderates global climate (figure above b).
Figures credited to Stephen Marshak.