How Long was Venus Potentially Habitable and What Caused it to Become the Volcanic and Acidic Planet it is Today?

Venusian Habitable Climate Scenarios: Modeling Venus Through Time and Applications to Slowly Rotating Venus‐Like Exoplanets

by: M.J. Way, Anthony D. Del Genio 

Summarized by: Lisette Melendez

What data were used? Nowadays, Venus is known for its extreme climate. It’s the hottest planet in our Solar System (with a surface temperature of about 840°F!), and the only planet that spins in the opposite direction. In fact, Venus spins so fast that its acidic clouds can travel completely around the planet in 5 days. Despite its extremities, Venus is also known as Earth’s sister planet. Both planets formed very close to one another and their shape and mass are very similar. So how did their surfaces become so distinct from one another? There are many hypotheses posed as to what early Venus looked like, ranging from a stable world with surface liquid water, to a volcanic world with a magma ocean and a carbon dioxide atmosphere. In order to better understand the early history of Venus, scientists used the data that we have about early Earth and simulations generated by various satellites orbiting Venus.

Methods: By modeling early Venus to closely match the conditions of early Earth using NASA’s ROCKE-3D (a tool you can try out yourself!) general circulation models, the scientists were able to examine how changes in factors like surface water and rotation rate affected Venus’s climate.

Results: The team discovered that Venus’s climate may have been stable and temperate with liquid water at its surface for most of the planet’s history, as shown in Figure 2. So, what caused the huge change? The authors argue that it was caused by the synchronized eruption of massive volcanoes, leading to the large igneous provinces (LIPs, or large collection of volcanic rocks) seen on Venus today. These LIPs could have triggered a runaway greenhouse effect on Venus, a situation where a planet absorbs more energy from the sun than it can radiate back into space. This leads to an inability to cool down and to the evaporation of surface water on the planet. On Earth, some LIPs are known to coincide with mass extinctions, so these events are already known to create colossal changes on the surface of a planet.

Figure 1: An image of the harsh surface of Venus, the most volcanic planet in our Solar System. Credit: NASA JPL.

Why is this study important? This study is important because it gives us insight as to whether early Venus ever had life-friendly environments: did the planet ever experience the same evolutionary processes that Earth did? It also helps us understand exoplanets, which are planets outside of our Solar System, which are tens of thousands of years away by rocket travel. Some of these rocky exoplanets orbit very close to their host stars, much like Venus orbits close to the Sun. So, perhaps these exoplanets host surface liquid water as well!

Figure 2: A graphical representation of the possible climate history of Venus. For most of its history, it is proposed that Venus had a temperate climate with surface water.

The big picture: After analyzing the various models of Venusian history, scientists found that Venus was potentially habitable, like Earth is, for most of its lifetime, which is remarkably different from the acidic, scorching atmosphere we observe today. Large, simultaneous volcanic eruptions may have made it impossible for Venus to cool down, and the resultant dry and hot atmosphere could have led Venus to its current conditions. Even so, more observations from Venus’s surface are needed to fully understand its history and transformation.

Citation: Way, M. J. & Genio, A. D. D. Venusian Habitable Climate Scenarios: Modeling Venus Through Time and Applications to Slowly Rotating Venus-Like Exoplanets. Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets 125, e2019JE006276 (2020).


The Clues Ancient Glaciers Leave Behind on Mars

Transient post-glacial processes on Mars: Geomorphologic evidence for a paraglacial period

by: Erica R. Jawin, James W. Head, David R. Marchant 

Summarized by: Lisette Melendez

Figure 1: A map of the crater in the midlatitudes on Mars, showing the geologic features that were created due to deglaciation, like gullies and spatulate depressions. These same features can be found in post-glacial environments on Earth!

What data were used? Mars, just like Earth, goes through a cycle of glaciation and deglaciation. The rise and fall of glaciers on Mars is influenced primarily by the planet’s obliquity, or the tilt of its axis. During times of higher obliquity, the planet’s tilt is greater, hence its poles are exposed to more sunlight and the glaciers leave the poles and travel towards the middle of the planet. As the cycle continues and the tilt is lower, the glaciers leave the midlatitudes and migrate towards the poles once again. The period of time where environments are adjusting to deglaciation is known as a paraglacial period, and it comes with a group of identifying features that are well studied here on Earth. This study applies what we’ve learned about the kinds of geologic features that are left behind by glaciers on Earth to the environment on Mars. The area that is left behind by a glacier is known as a glacial deposit. By analyzing images of craters on Mars taken by cameras aboard the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, scientists are able to find evidence of paraglacial periods and how long they last on Mars.

Figure 2: A photo of two retreating glaciers in the Antarctic Valley that are leaving behind ridges that are comparable to the ones found on the Martian surface.

Methods:  After choosing a crater in the midlatitudes of Mars, the scientists began breaking down the features found in the images of the crater and mapping out the terrain, as shown in Figure 1. Glaciers leave behind special signatures in the rocks on Earth (e.g., here are some Time Scavengers posts about glacial geology on Earth: glaciers in Connecticut River Valley and glaciers in the Bay of Fundy), and the objective was to identify these same features on Mars. In order to further understand the processes that were occurring in the crater on Mars, analyses of places with the same climate and geologic features on Earth were used! The climate on Mars is arid and freezing, similar to the McMurdo Dry Valleys in Antarctica.

Figure 3: A diagram that shows the process of forming gullies and debris fans (piles of sediment), which can be seen in real-life in the next figure.

Results: Several geologic features that, when found together, are indicative of glaciers migrating away were found in this crater on Mars. Some of these features include ridges becoming increasingly deformed as one looks further downslope, as shown in Figure 2, where the ridges of the glacial deposits in Antarctica are more deformed at the bottom of the picture. Spoon-like holes, called spatulate depressions, were also found on both the Antarctic glacial deposits and the Martian crater, formed by ice weathering away. As glaciers retreat, they often leave behind steep slopes in their wake. These slopes are unstable, and over time, sediment flows downward and builds up on the sides to stabilize the slope, as shown in Figure 3. Gullies, which are a geologic feature formed by the path that the sediment took to travel downward, and the resulting triangular piles of sediment can be found both in the crater on Mars and on Earth, shown side by side in Figure 4.

Why is this study important? This study is important because it increases our understanding of the time frames of climate cycles on Mars, and also highlights the similarities and differences between Mars and Earth. On Earth, paraglacial periods are relatively short, and the features left behind are likely to be eroded away by rainfall, rivers, and vegetation. These features are better preserved on Mars, an extremely cold and dry planet that doesn’t have the same erosive forces.

Figure 4: An example of gullies and debris fans on Mars (left) and on Earth (right).

The big picture:  Understanding the formation of geologic features on Earth is essential to uncovering the geologic history of the rest of our planets. This study showed that several features that form after a glacier migrates away can be found both on Earth and on Mars. The key difference is the time frame: on Earth, the paraglacial period is relatively rapid, while on Mars, it takes place on the scale of millions of years. 

Citation:mJawin, E. R., Head, J. W. & Marchant, D. R. Transient post-glacial processes on Mars: Geomorphologic evidence for a paraglacial period. Icarus 309, 187–206 (2018).

Tracing the Body Plans of Echinoderms through Time

Evolution and Development at the Origin of a Phylum

by: Bradley Deline, Jeffrey R. Thompson, Nicholas S. Smith, Samuel Zamora, Imran A. Rahman, Sarah L. Sheffield, William I. Ausich, Thomas W. Kammer, and Colin D. Sumrall

Summarized by: Lisette Melendez

What data were used? In this paper, changes in the bodies of early echinoderms (the group that includes marine animals such as starfish and sea urchins!) are tracked in order to understand the trends that separate groups from the rest of the animal kingdom. The main question is: why are all the body plans so different from one another? Figure 1 shows the range of body plans for early echinoderms, but the distinction carries on even today, considering how starfish and sea cucumbers look so different from one another! In order to quantify these changes, the scientists directly studied specimens from various natural history museums, sifted through past echinoderm papers, discussed with experts in organism classification, and consulted the Treatise on Invertebrate Paleontology. Since the scientists were looking specifically at early echinoderms, we are talking about fossils that date back to the Cambrian and Ordovician periods, about 541-444 million years ago! Usually, data from fossils this old is limited because many significant characteristics are worn away with time. However, echinoderms have notable skeletons that retain a great deal of important characteristics, making their skeletons excellent indicators of evolutionary changes through time.

Figure 1: a collection of different early Paleozoic echinoderm body plans. The one featured in (A) is non-radial, (B) is pentaradial attached, (C) is mobile and able to move around freely, and (D) – (F) are pentaradial stalked (hence the stem-like structures).

Methods: Once all the data was gathered, the next step was to find a way to accurately portray the changes of early echinoderm bodies through time. A morphospace, or a representation of every possible shape of echinoderms, was created, as shown in Figure 2. Four major echinoderm body plans were revealed in the graph. Three of the groups had radial symmetry (symmetry around a central part), while one was non-radial. Two of the groups were characterized by stem-like stalks that attached the echinoderm to the sea floor, while another group was mobile and free to move around. While Figure 2 shows the overall body plans of early echinoderms, this graph was further broken down into specific time intervals (each about 20 million years long) in order to study how the body plans changed over time. Figure 3 depicts how different the body plans were from one another throughout time.

Results: By studying the graphs, several important evolutionary trends can be picked out. Take, for example, Figure 3. The Cambrian was when the first major echinoderm body plans appeared, but the Ordovician was really where each body plan became more complex and different from one another, pointing to the Great Ordovician Biodiversification Event. Each body plan became more well-defined over time, and the differences between the various body plans are highlighted by the extinction of the transitional forms that connected one body plan to another. Even as evolution continued to progress, sometimes certain species would “readapt” a characteristic that they lost thousands of millions of years previously, showing how flexible evolution can really be.               

Figure 2: A graph that shows all the different body types of Echinoderms, separated by characteristic differences like mobility and radial symmetry (or lack thereof).

Why is this study important?  This study is important in studying the mechanisms behind the nature of the Cambrian explosion: why do all of these major animal groups start appearing and how have the groups changed over time? This study shows how fluid characteristics are throughout time, with the introduction, removal, and possibly even a re-introduction of characteristics to body plans as time progresses (this is called homoplasy). It highlights the various patterns of body types within Echinodermata and the patterns of gaining or losing characteristics over time, indicating the complexity in studying how animals change over time.

Figure 3: A graph that shows the diversity of echinoderms between the Cambrian and the Ordovician (541 – 444 million years ago).

The big picture: This study helps us fill in some of the gaps in our knowledge about the Cambrian Explosion, a consequential chapter in the history of living creatures, and how animals have evolved since that point. It shows how evolution has changed the bodies of animals within the same group over time and helps us understand how some animals (like sand dollars and brittle stars) can look so different, yet be closely related to one another. 

 Citation: Deline et al., Evolution and Development at the Origin of a Phylum, Current Biology (2020), j.cub.2020.02.054

Behind the Storm: How Climate Change Affects Women’s Empowerment in Africa and Asia

A Qualitative Comparative Analysis of Women’s Agency and Adaptive Capacity in Climate Change Hotspots in Asia and Africa

by: Nitya Rao, Arabinda Mishra, Anjal Prakash, Chandni Singh, Ayesha Qaisrani, Prathigna Poonacha, Katharine Vincent, and Claire Bedelian

Summarized by: Lisette Melendez

What data were used? This study focused on the lives of 25 women from geographically different areas in Africa and Asia, including deserts, mountains, and deltas. Even though their cultures and livelihoods differed, they were connected by one phenomenon: climate change. Climate change is something that affects humanity as a whole, but the most severe impact will be felt by our vulnerable communities. As summers grow hotter and droughts increase, those whose livelihoods depend on natural resources will face extreme adversity in the coming years.

Figure 1: A map of all the areas that were surveyed in this study.

Methods: The focal point of the study was to investigate how a woman’s agency – or ability to make meaningful and strategic decisions – was impacted by her surroundings. During field research, each woman was interviewed and their livelihood, exposure to environmental risks (like cyclones, flooding, and storm surges), and societal standing were charted. Then, conditions like material possessions, supportive legal systems, and environmental stress were analyzed in each situation to measure the impact each had on the given woman’s life.

Results: With climate change leading to inconsistent rain and extreme temperatures, land becomes infertile and inadequate for farming. Men often migrate away in search of better job opportunities, and while this presents as a source of empowerment for women, with the chance of increasing their involvement in managing money, the research shows it was actually a burden. One young woman noted, ‘Men can easily migrate for work whereas we have to stay here (at home) to take care of the family’. The women were often left alone to provide food for their children and maintain the crops and pay the bills. Even in states with relief programs for floods and droughts, women were often excluded from receiving aid – reinforcing cultural norms that disadvantage women globally. The same trend can be seen in the United States right at this very moment, with up to 90% of women and minority business owners being excluded from the Paycheck Protection Program.

Environmental stress overshadowed the benefits women received from becoming a greater part in household decisions and in the workforce. Why? Because climate change has destructive consequences for the environment in which these women base their lives on. The struggle to simply survive in barren fields forces women to work harder, in poorer conditions, and for lower wages.

Figure 2: The United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals

Why is this study important? This study provides vital information for governments to implement effective social programs for their citizens. It advances conversations about gender equality on the international stage and urges leaders to commit to gender equality when drafting important documents like the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction.  

 The big picture: The negative environmental impacts of human-driven climate change are now inevitable: global temperatures will continue to rise, droughts will become more prevalent, and storms will intensify. It is important, now more than ever, to ensure that countries have the necessary social programs that can effectively help people sustainably adapt to the changing environment. Resources and adaptation strategies must be made available to the communities that are most vulnerable to fluctuating circumstances. 

Citation: Rao, N., Mishra, A., Prakash, A. et al. A qualitative comparative analysis of women’s agency and adaptive capacity in climate change hotspots in Asia and Africa. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 964–971 (2019).

Using Cliffs on Earth to Understand Water Flow on Ancient Mars

Prolonged Fluvial Activity From Channel-Fan Systems on Mars

by: Gaia Stucky de Quay, Edwin S. Kite, and David P. Mayer 

Summarized by: Lisette Melendez

What data were used? In geology, there’s a basic pillar called “The Principle of Uniformitarianism”. It suggests that geologic processes almost always occur in the same manner and intensity now as they did in the past – which is why geologists can look at the rock record to learn more about Earth’s future. In the same vein, many geologic processes that occur on Earth, like landslides, volcanoes, and erosions, can be used to study the same processes on different planets!

This study focused on analyzing pictures of alluvial fans (finger-like deposits that are usually created when running water in arid or semi-arid (e.g., deserts) flows downhill onto a flat surface, as shown in Figure 1) on Mars taken by the Context Camera (CTX) on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The scientists also compared Martian alluvial fans to the ones found here on Earth using elevation data collected by the NASA Shuttle Radar Topography Mission. These alluvial fans usually mark the end of a water channel, so they can be used to study ancient water deposits on Mars.       

Figure 1: An example of an alluvial fan on the surface of Mars, taken by the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter.

Methods: To study the channels of Mars, the CTX images were converted into digital elevation models, so information like width, slope, and height could be gathered from the data. The valleys on Mars were also measured for how closely they resembled a V-shape. Valleys shaped by rivers have a V-shape, while valleys shaped by other features, like glaciers, tend to have a U-shape.

After gathering all this data, the scientists desired to make an inference about the sediment on Mars, which is too small to be picked up by the camera. So, they turned to places on Earth that had alluvial fans that were very similar to the ones being studied on Mars: the Serra Geral in Brazil, the Great Escarpment in western South Africa, and the Western Ghats in India. These places were ideal parallels for the Martian surface because there’s little to no active tectonic plate movement in the area and the rocks are very well preserved over a long period of geologic time. The big difference is that instead of being placed along mountainsides or plateaus, the slopes that are being studied on Mars are usually along crater rims. 

Results: The channels studied on Mars were found to be less concave (curved inwards) and have very steep slopes, indicating a dry environment. The data on concavity and erodibility (likeliness to erode away) on the Martian alluvial fans was most similar to the data found on the South African slopes, which reinforces the idea that the environment was similarly hot and dry.

Figure 2: The cliffs of Earth (Brazil, South Africa, and India) used to study the sediment on the Martian surface.

Why is this study important? This study is another piece of evidence behind the idea that Mars was once full of water, before it underwent serious climate change. Understanding the history of water on Mars is crucial to understanding what conditions are necessary for life to evolve (which can help paleontologists learn about the first life on Earth, too!). It’s also interesting to note how we can learn more about planets that are millions of miles away by looking right here on Earth!

 The big picture: More than a billion years ago, water used to run freely on the surface of Mars, creating channels and alluvial fans. Scientists use images of the geologic features that remained after water was no longer on the Martian surface to learn more about the history of the Red Planet and the potential implications for human exploration. Learning more about the surface and climate of Mars is necessary for understanding the hazards and potential resources that would be encountered on a crewed mission to Mars.

Citation: Stucky de Quay, G., Kite, E. S., & Mayer, D. P. ( 2019). Prolonged fluvial activity from channel‐fan systems on Mars. Journal of Geophysical Research: Planets, 124, 3119– 3139.

Understanding the geologic history of a near-Earth Asteroid through the lens of NASA’s OSIRIS-Rex mission

Craters, Boulders, and Regolith of (101955) Bennu Indicative of an Old and Dynamic Surface

by: K. J. Walsh, E. R. Jawin, R.-L. Ballouz, O. S. Barnouin, E. B. Bierhaus, H. C. Connolly Jr., J. L. Molaro, T. J. McCoy, M. Delbo’, C. M. Hartzell, M. Pajola, S. R. Schwartz, D. Trang, E. Asphaug, K. J. Becker, C. B. Beddingfield, C. A. Bennett, W. F. Bottke, K. N. Burke, B. C. Clark, M. G. Daly, D. N. DellaGiustina, J. P. Dworkin, C. M. Elder, D. R. Golish, A. R. Hildebrand, R. Malhotra, J. Marshall, P. Michel, M. C. Nolan, M. E. Perry, B. Rizk, A. Ryan, S. A. Sandford, D. J. Scheeres, H. C. M. Susorney, F. Thuillet, D. S. Lauretta and the OSIRIS-REx Team

Summarized by: Lisette Melendez

What data were used? Unlike geologic sites on Earth, scientists aren’t able to use field work to determine the geologic history of celestial objects like asteroids, planets, and distant moons. Instead, planetary geologists rely on data collected by scientific instruments on spacecraft, like cameras and spectrometers, to study these unreachable geologic features.

The data for this study was gathered from images taken by NASA’s ORISIS-Rex spacecraft, whose mission is to travel to a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu. Asteroids are the remains of the building blocks of our solar system that enabled the rise of planets and life, and most of them reside in the Main Asteroid Belt. However, sometimes asteroids are ejected and enter the inner solar system (i.e. the rocky planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars), becoming near-Earth asteroids. This asteroid, Bennu, was chosen for the sample collection mission because of its proximity to Earth, large size (almost 500 meters long!), and carbonaceous (i.e., carbon-rich) composition. The carbon-rich part is important because these asteroids contain chemical compounds and amino acids that would have been present at the beginning of our Solar System. Even though the asteroid is relatively long compared to other asteroids, it’s only about as wide as the length of the Empire State Building!

The spacecraft is set to bring back a sample of this asteroid to Earth by 2023 for scientists to analyze. In late 2018, the spacecraft began the approach phase of the mission and used its cameras to take high-quality pictures of Bennu’s surface, as shown in Figure 1. These images are not only used to determine a good sample collection site, but scientists also use them to learn more about the geologic processes on Bennu’s surface. By weaving the images together, the team was able to produce a three-dimensional model of the asteroid and determine the location of boulders on the surface of Bennu. 

Figure 1: Shows the size of various boulders on Bennu’s surface. The arrows point towards identified fractures, which may be indicative of large impact events or stress caused by rapid temperature changes.

Methods: The surface of Bennu was mapped out by visually analyzing images taken by cameras on OSIRIS-Rex. Scientists combined image and radar data to measure the size and distribution of boulders on Bennu’s surface. By applying the same foundational geologic concepts observed here on Earth, scientists can draw conclusions about the geologic features on asteroids and what forces potentially formed them. 

Results: The orbit of a near-Earth asteroid is tumultuous, due to the possibility of collision with other asteroids and the forces exerted by Earth’s gravity, making a usual lifespan of a near-Earth asteroid only last around tens of millions of years. Usually, this would mean a young, consistently refreshed surface for these near-Earth asteroids. However, a detailed study of Bennu’s surface shows evidence of rocks that are hundreds of millions of years old – long before Bennu ever left the Main Asteroid Belt. 

Boulders are the most prominent geologic feature on Bennu’s surface. As shown in Figure 2, they can be found all around the asteroid. Scientists noted that the size of various boulders are simply too large for them to have been formed in Bennu’s current orbit, pointing towards the possibility they were created during larger asteroid collisions in the main asteroid belt. This indicates that studying the boulders further may aid in the understanding of Bennu’s parent body (i.e., where the rocks were originally created) and conditions in the main asteroid belt.

Another interesting result from the study is that even though the resolution of the images was not clear enough to depict fine-grained particles, the scientists measured thermal inertia (tendency to resist changes in temperature) and found that the results were consistent with the existence of fine-grained particles on Bennu’s surface. Come the end of 2020, the spacecraft will start up the TAGSAM (Touch-and-Go-Sample-Acquisition-Mechanism) instrument, blow nitrogen gas onto the surface to stir up dust, and collect the sample – leading to even more scientific discoveries on the asteroid front.  

Figure 2: Maps the abundance of boulders on Bennu’s surface, where red marks areas that are densely populated by boulders and blue marks areas where there are relatively less boulders.

Why is this study important? This study is a reminder of how fascinating geology is: scientists were able to predict the history of the asteroid solely by measuring the size and distribution of boulders on its surface. This group was able to differentiate between events that occurred while Bennu was in the Main Asteroid Belt versus a near-Earth orbit, which helps us understand the environment right outside of Earth and beyond. 

The big picture: By looking into the early Solar System, the data gathered in this study will help scientists understand the processes behind the formation of planets, as well as the origins of life. Additionally, the study will enhance our understanding of the evolution of near-Earth asteroids as well as the possibility of the asteroids impacting Earth.

Citation: Walsh, K.J., Jawin, E.R., Ballouz, R. et al. Craters, boulders and regolith of (101955) Bennu indicative of an old and dynamic surface. Nat. Geosci. 12, 242–246 (2019).

We’ve Seen This Before: What The Extinctions in Our Geologic Past Indicate About the Dangers of Current CO2 Emissions

Deep CO2 in the end-Triassic Central Atlantic Magmatic Province

Manfredo Capriolo, Andrea Marzoli, László E. Aradi, Sara Callegaro, Jacopo Dal Corso, Robert K. Newton, Benjamin J. W. Mills, Paul D. Wignall, Omar Bartoli, Don R. Baker, Nasrrddine Youbi, Laurent Remusat, Richard Spiess, and Csaba Szabó

Summarized by Lisette Melendez. 

What data were used? 

This study investigates the large-scale volcanic activity that would eventually lead to the end-Triassic Extinction, one of the top five most devastating extinction events for life on Earth, that occurred about 201 million years ago. The volcanic eruptions took place across the globe, leading to a massive sheet of volcanic rocks known as the Central Atlantic Magmatic Province, or CAMP for short. Considering that the volcanic activity took place before the supercontinent Pangea was fully split apart, CAMP rocks can be found in North America, Africa, and Europe, as shown in Figure 1. Scientists used both intrusive (magma that crystallized underground) and extrusive (magma that cooled on the Earth’s surface) rock samples to investigate the amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, released into the atmosphere during these catastrophic eruptions.

Methods: By analyzing the concentration of the carbon dioxide bubbles (Figure 2) trapped within the crystals that were formed during the volcanic eruptions, scientists can determine the speed and frequency of the eruptions. After collecting more than 200 samples, the concentration of carbon dioxide within the rocks was determined using microspectroscopy: a method that shows the spectra of the sample in order to identify and quantify the various compounds that are present. 

Results: Overall, there was a high volume of carbon dioxide bubbles within CAMP rocks. Since CO2 is an accelerant for magma eruptions, the volcanic activity was likely hasty and violent. The rapid rise of CO2 in the environment means CO2-removing mechanisms, like weathering, aren’t enough to balance out the excess CO2. This leads to a carbon dioxide buildup in the atmosphere, accelerating global warming and ocean acidification.


Figure 1: A map of the boundaries Central Atlantic Magmatic Province in central Pangea, around 200 million years ago. It shows how wide-spread the volcanic eruptions were during this time.

Why is this study important? The study of CO2 saturation in rocks helps us understand the role that volcanism played in the buildup of excessive greenhouse gases in the atmosphere that triggered the end-Triassic extinction. It showed that the more rapid the release of CO2 into the atmosphere is, the more severe the environmental impact.

The big picture: This study can be used as a warning for current trends, considering that the amount of CO2 emitted during the CAMP eruption roughly equals the amount of projected anthropogenic (i.e., human-caused) emissions over the 21st century. Just like in the past, the current substantial rise in CO2 is leading to a global temperature increase and a surge in ocean acidification, but we are releasing CO2 much faster than at any other time in Earth’s history. Considering that these are the same conditions that led to one of the worst biotic extinctions in Earth’s history, it is vital to encourage our governments to implement radical climate change policies in order to slow the current rise of CO2 to prevent more environmental destruction. 

Figure 2: The black arrows point towards the bubble-bearing inclusions within the rock samples using light optical microscopy. The high concentration of CO2 within these bubbles indicates the magma was rich in CO2. These four samples are specifically orthopyroxene (Opx), clinopyroxene (Cpx), and calcic palgioclase (PI), and were sampled from Canada and Morocco.

Citation: Capriolo, M. et al. Deep CO2 in the end-Triassic Central Atlantic Magmatic Province. Nat Commun 11, 1670 (2020).

Lisette Melendez, Geology and Astronomy Undergraduate Student

Standing outside of NASA Ames, where Lisette worked in aiding the lunar landing mission!

What is your favorite part of being a scientist?

Ever since I was very young, I’ve always had a fascination with geology. In elementary school, I would tout around my battered copy of the Smithsonian handbook on rocks and minerals and take notes in my “research journal”. Rocks littered every available surface of my room, and my ears always perked up when we finally reached the Earth Science section of our science classes. What’s cooler than learning about Earth’s layers and how volcanoes form? During field trips, I would sometimes get separated from the group, too mesmerized by rocks that I found on the ground. Even with all these signs, it wasn’t until the end of my first year in university that I realized that I could become a geologist and work with rocks for a career. 

I started off in a field that I was pressured into but that I had no passion for. How could I miss geology as a career option? For many years prior, every geologist that I encountered in my textbooks were white men. While I was working on one of my assignments, I looked over to see what my friend was working on. The assignment was to use Steno’s Laws of Stratigraphy to determine what order the rock layers were deposited. I thought the assignment was fascinating while my friend looked at me with a strange face. They told me about their professor, Dr. Sheffield, and how passionate she was for geology and all the amazing fieldwork she’s done throughout her career. This was a mindblowing moment for me: it was the first time I learned about a female geologist. That same day, I went to the student affairs office and changed my major to Geology. 

From that day forward, I got to experience first hand what a difference doing what you love made in one’s life. My favorite part of being a scientist is simply that there’s always more to learn. Every single day, I wake up incredibly excited to go to class and learn about minerals, volcanoes, and paleobiology. I still remember being in my old major looking wistfully at the Mineralogy class on the USF course inventory. I’m forever grateful that now, that’s what I study all the time! I look over my room and now there are textbooks on planetary volcanism, astrobiology, and sedimentology that join the rocks scattered on various surfaces. Sometimes, I feel like I never really changed from that child who loved rocks: now, I’m just working to be able to collect rocks for the rest of my life.

What do you do?

Right now, I’m studying geology and astronomy at the University of South Florida. My future goals are to get accepted into a PhD program for planetary science, and then hopefully work on the research team that analyzes samples from the surface of Mars and become a curator at a natural history museum! 

Most of the research I do works towards uncovering the geologic past of celestial objects. It’s the perfect overlap between my two favorite subjects: geology and astronomy! Last summer, I conducted research about Martian ice caps at Brown University through the Leadership Alliance – an awesome program aimed at increasing diversity in STEM (read my Time Scavengers post about it here!). I also interned at NASA, where I helped write the code of a navigation program that would assist scientists locate ideal landing areas on the Moon. This upcoming summer, I’m really excited to be working with the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History on analyzing meteoritic samples collected by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission. The samples collected contain information on the earliest history of our solar system! I’m using my time in undergraduate studies to get a clearer idea of what branch of planetary science I’d like to delve into in graduate school.

Volunteering as a mentor for NCAS (NASA’s Community College Aerospace Scholars).

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change and the betterment of society in general?

I believe research in the planetary sciences helps humanity as a whole by illuminating our role in the universe. By addressing the questions of the universe,  the answers to our day to day problems become clearer through perspective. It’s easier to plot out humanity’s destiny and how to build a better society for everyone by figuring out where we came from and how the universe around us is changing. This is particularly important when considering the future of humans in space. Being able to find geologic analogs of celestial terrain (like the Martian surface) on Earth will help us decide which crops and structures work best for the Martian environment. As we continue exploring the universe, it’s important to keep in mind universal codes of safety, planetary preservation, and anti-imperialism in order to avoid harming the new environments we enter.

What methods do you use to engage your audience and community? What have you found to be the best way to communicate science?

One of the first pieces of advice that one of my mentors, Dr. Mustard, bestowed onto me was that “science is never done in a vacuum”. Collecting scientific data is an incredibly exciting part of research, but it’s also essential to communicate your findings with others to increase scientific literacy and humanity’s pool of knowledge. Science is all about sharing what you’ve learned and what you’ve experienced. It is much more rewarding involving different perspectives and helping everyone feel included. Through my officer positions at two clubs at USF, the Geology Club and the Contemporary Art Museum Club, I promote the importance of STEAM and interdisciplinary research. I believe one of the keys to successful science communication is to express why one’s excited about the topic and to make it relatable to what others are interested in. I’m really excited to join Time Scavengers as a science communications intern in order to hone in on this essential skill and become a better scientist overall.

Standing at the base of the 40 foot radio telescope at Green Bank Observatory!

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

My advice would be to just take a moment and think about what you really want from life. I’ve spent countless years just trying to follow what others expected me to do that I never really thought about what I wanted to be. Following the path others decide for you is no way to live your life. You’re the one who will have to live out your career path, so choose one you’re passionate in! There’s definitely space for you! There is such a wide range of fields, from studying bugs to glaciers, you deserve to make your mark the way that you want to.

Finding where you belong is essential to unlocking the zeal that will pull you through obstacles and challenges. Prior to joining the geology department, I was a very shy and reserved person. However, my passion for geology and astronomy (and the endless kindness from geologists) gave me the courage to overcome my anxieties and become resilient in the face of adversity. I transformed from a quiet and socially anxious person into the president of my university’s Geology Club and founder of USF’s Society of Women in Space Exploration Chapter. Openly doing what you love will also surround you with like-minded individuals that are the key to building a good support group! My favorite part about becoming a geologist would definitely be being able to network and meet others who are just as passionate about rocks as I am. It’s exhilarating, being friends with geologists and gathering around in the parking lot of a Waffle House to examine an outcrop. The feeling of togetherness is unmatched.