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The underground rises — the biggest geology and paleontology stories of 2019

More than just earthquakes, volcanoes, and dinosaurs (but yes, plenty of all those).

Hey, it wasn’t just the decade that ended this week! Geophysicist Melissa Hartwig and paleontology enthusiast Robert Reed want to remind you that 2019 was a great year for what lies below!

Geology in 2019

I feel the only way to begin a discussion of the biggest geological stories of 2019 is to start with one of the last, the eruption of New Zealand’s Whakaari (White) volcano on December 9.  Nearly two dozen people died in the eruption, which occurred while 47 tourists were visiting the privately-owned volcanic island, which has hosted thousands of geotourists since 1953.

Volcanic eruptions are notoriously difficult to predict, and the loss of life at White Island has brought to light the lack of safety guidelines and regulations for related tourism. This was demonstrated in July as well, when the Stromboli volcano in Italy erupted explosively, killing a hiker but sparing dozens of geotourists who were planning to climb the mountain only hours later.

The inherent dangers of volcanoes have hastened the study of the new (and growing) Kilauea Crater Lake, using helicopters and unmanned aircraft.  Formed in the crater created when the Kilauea Caldera collapsed after its 2018 eruptions, the lake’s existence was confirmed by scientists at the USGS Hawaiian Volcano Observatory in August. By November it was 20 feet deep and about the length of a football field.

The effect this lake will have on future eruptions of Kilauea is not certain. If magma rises more slowly than usual, the water will have time to evaporate and be replaced by lava flows or a new lava lake. However, a quick rise of magma could lead to excess steam and an explosive eruption, which is unusual for the Hawaiian islands.

Deadly Whakaari eruption in New Zealand

The destructive power of volcanoes falls second to that of earthquakes this year, with 273 of magnitude greater than or equal to 5.3. The largest of these occurred in Loreto, Peru, on May 26, with a magnitude of 8.0 at a depth of approximately 120 km.  The waves were felt and damage was caused as far away as Ecuador. Surprisingly, only two people were killed, though dozens were injured and left homeless. In contrast, a magnitude 6.4 quake in Durres, Albania, was responsible for 52 deaths, making it the deadliest earthquake of 2019, a year in which there were approximately 300 earthquake related deaths.

But the most interesting earthquake news that surfaced this year came from a pair of quakes on July 4th and 5th in the Mojave Desert measuring, 6.4 and 7.1, respectively, on previously unknown faults in this geologically complex area. They set into motion thousands of small aftershocks which, along with new surface ruptures, allowed geologists to update maps from the mid-1990s.  This new data connects a small number of known short faults into a system of faults that could potentially be responsible for a devastating quake in the future.

As always, geology in 2019 was not all death and destruction.  January saw what is believed to be the oldest Earth rock ever, strangely enough in the samples brought back from the Moon by Apollo 14 astronauts.  Scientists at The Center for Lunar Science have found evidence the rock was launched there after an impactor hit the Hadean Earth four billion years ago.  Chemical analysis shows the rock would have had to crystallize in a terrestrial oxidation system, in conditions not demonstrated by other lunar samples.

In September it was announced that a lost continent had been discovered under the Mediterranean Sea.  Believed to have broken off from what is now Spain, France, and northern Africa, Greater Adria is now a part of the Alps and Balkans. Relics of this chunk of what used to be Pangea can be found from Venice to Croatia.

Also announced in September was the discovery of a new mineral in a diamond.  Goldschmidtite, discovered by PhD student Nicole Meyer of the University of Alberta, was found in the diamond-bearing kimberlites of South African Kaapvaal craton, and has an unusual chemical signature for a mantle mineral. Goldschmidtite will give us new details about the fluid processes of the deep mantle during diamond formation. 

Fault line in the Mojave Desert

Paleontology in 2019

Over 40 new genera of dinosaurs – the unequivocal rock stars of paleontology – were discovered in 2019.  We saw the description of a one-meter tall ancient parrot, Heracles inexpectatus, and afossil forest was discovered in China.

Here are some of the many discoveries made in the field of paleontology in 2019.

1.) The Qingjiang biota

The Cambrian Period is the first period of the Paleozoic Era, dating from approximately 541 million years ago to 485.4 million years ago – over 200 million years before the emergence of dinosaurs. It was a period full of diversification in life, so much so that this diversification is often called the “Cambrian explosion.” In 2019, a new Cambrian lagerstätte (a term for a deposit of exceptionally preserved fossils) was discovered in China.

Described by Dongjing Fu, et al, the Qingjiang biota has yielded thousands of specimens and over 50 new species, making it one of the biggest finds in years. The quality of the preservation means the Qingjiang biota will undoubtedly be studied for decades, providing a look back at one of life’s most interesting periods.

Small sample of the Qingjiang biota

2.) Adratiklit boulahfa

With its spiked tail and rows of plates along its back, Stegosaurus remains an iconic part of dinosaur imagery. In 2019, Stegosaurus gained a fascinating  new relative. Discovered in Morocco and described by Susannah C.R. Maidment, Thomas J. Raven, Driss Ouarhache, and Paul M. Barrett, Adratiklit boulahfa (the genus comes from Berber words for “mountain” and “lizard,” while the species name refers to the location in which the specimen was found) adds new wrinkles to the family tree.

Adratiklit is notable for several reasons – it’s the earliest known Stegosaur from Africa, and the only member of the family from the northern half of the continent. Furthermore, based on fossil evidence, it’s more closely related to the European Stegosaurs than those from the southern half of Africa, like Kentrosaurus.

This is fascinating, because Stegosaurs have not often been found in the areas that formed the ancient continent of Gondwana, especially in comparison to their relatives on Laurasia (the ancient continent formed by North America, Europe, and Asia). The existence of Adratiklit not only adds to the count of species in Gondwana, it suggests a wider diversity waiting to be discovered.

3.) Amber foot

Anyone who’s seen Jurassic Park knows that amber is fossilized tree sap that can preserve material for millions of years. We’ve all seen the bug preserved in John Hammond’s cane. But in 2019, amber provided a marvelous discovery – a new species of bird named Elektorornis chenguangi.

Described by Lida Xing et al, Elektorornis was known from a specimen of amber that preserved the bird’s unusual foot. With a dramatically elongated third toe, the scientists knew they had a new species because no other bird, living or extinct, is known to have feet with these bizarre proportions. The scientists propose that, like the aye-aye of Madagascar, this bird may have used its unique toe to get at insect larvae hidden in tree trunks.

Fossils of Adratiklit boulahfa

AIPT Science is co-presented by AIPT and the New York City Skeptics.

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