Friday, April 28, 2017

Himalayan Gravel Flux And Flood Risk

Why should an understanding of sediment transport distance and whether that sediment gets broken down into coarser gravel or finer sand be of any practical use?

Here is a good example from the Himalaya.

Abrasion-set limits on Himalayan gravel flux- Elizabeth H. Dingle, Mikaƫl Attal & Hugh D. Sinclair

Rivers sourced in the Himalayan mountain range carry some of the largest sediment loads on the planet, yet coarse gravel in these rivers vanishes within approximately 10–40 kilometres on entering the Ganga Plain (the part of the North Indian River Plain containing the Ganges River). Understanding the fate of gravel is important for forecasting the response of rivers to large influxes of sediment triggered by earthquakes or storms. Rapid increase in gravel flux and subsequent channel bed aggradation (that is, sediment deposition by a river) following the 1999 Chi-Chi and 2008 Wenchuan earthquakes reduced channel capacity and increased flood inundation. Here we present an analysis of fan geometry, sediment grain size and lithology in the Ganga Basin. We find that the gravel fluxes from rivers draining the central Himalayan mountains, with upstream catchment areas ranging from about 350 to 50,000 square kilometres, are comparable. Our results show that abrasion of gravel during fluvial transport can explain this observation; most of the gravel sourced more than 100 kilometres upstream is converted into sand by the time it reaches the Ganga Plain. These findings indicate that earthquake-induced sediment pulses sourced from the Greater Himalayas, such as that following the 2015 Gorkha earthquake, are unlikely to drive increased gravel aggradation at the mountain front. Instead, we suggest that the sediment influx should result in an elevated sand flux, leading to distinct patterns of aggradation and flood risk in the densely populated, low-relief Ganga Plain.

Behind paywall, but I thought this is a good illustration of how insights into very fundamental earth processes can potentially help save lives.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Evolution Of The Konkan-Kanara Coastal Plain

The Konkan coastal plains is a beautiful getaway from west coast city life. Palm fringed beaches, quiet rivers and estuaries, betel nut plantations and forest tracts. Small villages and settlements dot the landscape. To the east, the coastal plains abut against the imposing Western Ghat escarpment.

How did this coastal plain of Maharashtra form? (Kanara refers to the stretch south of Maharashtra in the state of Karnataka).  I came across a paper by Mike Widdowson on the evolution of laterite in Goa. It also has a broader discussion on the conditions that led to the formation of geomorphology of the coastal lowlands extending all along the west coast of India.

Here it is summarized nicely in this figure below:

Source: Evolution of Laterite in Goa: Mike Widdowson  2009

After Deccan Volcanism ended, rifting of the Indian west coast and down faulting of the western side led to the formation of a west facing fault scarp. Erosion of this scarp over the early mid Cenozoic (from about 60 million years ago) has caused it to retreat eastwards. The Western Ghat escarpment is this retreated scarpThe coastal plain formed as an erosional surface that became broader and broader with the progressive eastward retreat of this cliff to the current location. The fault which caused the western side to subside thus lies in the Arabian Sea along the west coast.

In Mid-Late Miocene (~10 million years ago), a phase of humid climate resulted in intense chemical weathering of the basalts and pediment (rock debris) exposed along the coastal plains. This alteration of the basalts formed thick iron rich soils. The reddened and indurated crust of this soil is commonly termed laterite. In the Western coastal lowlands this laterite may be a few meters thick.

Subsequent uplift of the west coast and concomitant down cutting by west flowing rivers formed a dissected landscape composed of laterite capped mesas (table lands) and entrenched meandering streams. These mesas reach altitudes of 150-200 m in the eastern parts of the coastal plain. Nearer the coast they are about 50 -100 m above sea level. 

The western margin of India has seen multiple episodes of extensive laterite formation. The famous table lands of the hill stations of Panchgani and Mahabaleshwar are also made up of laterite. They occur at altitudes of around 1200 m to 1500 m.  However, this upland or high altitude laterite is much older, having formed about 60- 50 million years ago in the early Cenozoic, soon after Deccan volcanism ended. The Konkan and Goa lowland laterites point to another younger phase of laterization. Sheila Mishra and colleagues have identified two more surfaces in the Deccan Traps at 650 m ASL and 850 m ASL that preserve remnants of laterite cover. This suggests a complex polyphase history of denudation and chemical weathering and tectonic stability of the Sahaydri ranges of the Western Ghats.

The sea cliffs that one encounters as you travel along the Konkan and Goa coastline are a result of a late Cenozoic uplift. I remember with fondness a trek I did during my college days from the town of Ratnagiri south to the town of Malvan. There were absolutely majestic sections where we walked on the edge of laterite capped sea cliffs with the Arabian Sea heaving and thundering below us. Little coves and beaches of sparkling white sand lay between the cliffs. Here and there local fisherman had kept their fish catch to dry out in the sun. The pungent smell urged us on!

The satellite imagery below shows a section of the coastal plains from Ratnagiri in the north to Devgarh in the south. White arrows point to the laterite capped table lands dissected by stream networks. Orange arrows point to sea cliffs. Black arrows shows the Western Ghat escarpment.

This is a very interesting paper. Open Access.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Oceanic Crustal Thickness Since The Breakup Of Pangea

Of interest:

Decrease in oceanic crustal thickness since the breakup of Pangaea - Harm J. A. Van Avendonk, Joshua K. Davis, Jennifer L. Harding and Lawrence A. Lawver

Earth’s mantle has cooled by 6–11 °C every 100 million years since the Archaean, 2.5 billion years ago. In more recent times, the surface heat loss that led to this temperature drop may have been enhanced by plate-tectonic processes, such as continental breakup, the continuous creation of oceanic lithosphere at mid-ocean ridges and subduction at deep-sea trenches. Here we use a compilation of marine seismic refraction data from ocean basins globally to analyse changes in the thickness of oceanic crust over time. We find that oceanic crust formed in the mid-Jurassic, about 170 million years ago, is 1.7 km thicker on average than crust produced along the present-day mid-ocean ridge system. If a higher mantle temperature is the cause of thicker Jurassic ocean crust, the upper mantle may have cooled by 15–20 °C per 100 million years over this time period. The difference between this and the long-term mantle cooling rate indeed suggests that modern plate tectonics coincide with greater mantle heat loss. We also find that the increase of ocean crustal thickness with plate age is stronger in the Indian and Atlantic oceans compared with the Pacific Ocean. This observation supports the idea that upper mantle temperature in the Jurassic was higher in the wake of the fragmented supercontinent Pangaea due to the effect of continental insulation.

Continental insulation refers to the idea that an unbroken continental crust such as that provided by a supercontinent may act as a blanket resulting in a slow build up of heat over tens to hundreds of millions of years in the underlying mantle. Eventual continental breakup will lead to enhanced magmatism and thicker ocean crust along these previously insulated regions.

The Pangaean paleogeography of the Triassic (252 million to 201 million years ago) is depicted in the map below. The distribution of continents is lopsided covering the sites of the future Atlantic and Indian Oceans.

 Source: Paleobiology Navigator

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Exploring India's Paleogeography And Fossils Using The Paleobiology Database Navigator

I was directed to the Paleobiology Navigator by a tweet from @avinashtn .

Great fun! The Paleobiology Database is being maintained by an international non-governmental group of paleontologists. Contributing members add to it fossil occurrences from scientific publications.  The Paleobiology Database Navigator is a web mapping application managed by the University of Wisconsin-Madison that allows you to explore the geographic context of these fossil locations. You can filter the data based on age, taxonomy and geography. You can also generate diversity trends for the selected set.

I played around a bit with India specific fossil locations.

Paleozoic versus Mesozoic Basins

The figure below shows the distribution of fossil localities for the Paleozoic Era. India is shown as it is today and in its Paleozoic geography.

Source: Paleobiology Navigator

You can clearly see that fossils in Peninsular India are predominantly located in one narrow band in the center and east of the country. These are the Permian Gondwana basins. They are, starting from the westernmost and going eastwards, Satpura Basin, Son Valley Basin, Damodar Valley Basin and the Ranjganj Basin.  These are continental interior basins comprising river, lake and swamp environments. Most of India's coal deposits come from these basins. These basins are rich in plant fossils, and reptile and amphibians remains.

Now take a look at India's geographic position (arrow) during the Permian (298-252 million years ago). Peninsular India occupies an interior location within Gondwanaland, far away from any ocean. Tectonic stability through most of the Paleozoic meant lack of crustal movements. During this time, peninsular India was an erosional landscape until the Permian basin formation in the east.

The one Paleozoic fossil location in Rajasthan shown here represents early Permian marine sediments formed by the flooding of the western region by an arm of the Tethys sea.

And this database has still not added one important fossil location. This is the early Cambrian age locality near Jodhpur where sediments of the Nagaur Group are exposed. They contain trilobite trace fossils.  No basin development and sedimentation took place in Peninsular India from Mid-Cambrian to Permian times (530 million years to 298 million years). 

In contrast, look at the northern edge of India, where the Himalaya stand today. That margin was submerged under the Tethyan ocean. A thick pile of marine sediment accumulated right through the Paleozoic, forming the fossil rich Tethyan Sedimenary Sequence of the Himalaya.

Continental configurations changed in the Mesozoic (252 million to 66 million years ago). The figure below shows Mesozoic fossil locations and the Cretaceous paleogeography of India.

Source: Paleobiology Navigator

There is now a wide swath of fossil localities across Peninsular India. The dotted lines trace important linear depressions where sediments were deposited. The east west oriented Narmada rift zone (NRZ; Jurassic and Cretaceous) and the NW-SE oriented Pranhita Godavari zone (PGR; Triassic to Cretaceous) are important fossil repositories.  The eastern India basins continued accumulating sediment. To the west are the basins which formed in Gujarat and Rajasthan (Jurassic and Cretaceous). The Kutch rift (KR) is outline by dotted lines. And to the south east in Tamil Nadu, marine flooding of the eastern continental margin in the Cretaceous resulted in the deposition of richly fossiliferous sedimentary sequences.

All these basins ultimately owe their origin to the forces exerted on the crust as India pulled away (arrow) from Gondwanaland.  Seaways formed along these rifts and crustal depressions. The Mesozoic, especially the Jurassic and Cretaceous, was a time of global high sea levels. The western margin saw marine incursions from the nascent Indian Ocean, while the eastern margin was submerged by the waters of the newly formed Bay of Bengal.  River and lake systems also developed in more continental interior locations. The northern margin (Himalaya) was mostly a marine environment through the Mesozoic.

Marine versus Continental Interior Basins in Mesozoic Central India

The distribution of terrestrial organisms versus marine organisms can tell us about the extent of marine flooding into Peninsular Central India in the Mesozoic.

I created these maps by using localities of dinosaur fossils (above) to map the distribution of terrestrial sedimentary environments. I used localities of invertebrate marine organisms, namely,  brachiopods, echinoderms and ammonoids  to delimit the extent of marine environments along the Central Indian basins (below).

 Source: Paleobiology Navigator

You can see that terrestrial environments were present right across the Narmada rift zone, the Pranhita Godavari rift basin and in the western Indian basins also. In the western basins, some of the dinosaur fossils have been found in marginal marine settings comprising coastal and estuarine environments.

Deeper water marine environments as evidenced by brachiopod, echinoderm and ammonoid localities are however restricted to Gujarat, Rajasthan and western Madhya Pradesh. The Cretaceous Bagh Beds in Madhya Pradesh is the eastern most limit of Mesozoic marine flooding into Central India. Seaways did not extend into eastern parts of the Narmada rift basins.

Global and Indian Dinosaur Diversity Patterns

I used the Stats tool to create graphs of dinosaur diversity. The number of Genus per Stage is being used as a measure of diversity. Geologic time is subdivided in to bins. An Age is a bin spanning a few million years. Stage represents rock layers deposited in an Age. So, a diversity measure has been created by counting the number of dinosaur genus reported from successive bundles of rock layers, each representing a few million years of time.

Source: Paleobiology Navigator

The global diversity pattern shows episodes of diversification and decline in the Triassic, Jurassic and the Cretaceous. There appears to be a trend of increasing diversity through time with peak diversity in the Mid-Late Cretaceous. The Late Cretaceous extinction of dinosaurs forms the right side boundary.

The diversity measures in India show some differences with global trends. The number of Genus sampled are less. This is due to regional versus global sample. A smaller locale will generally have less of the total observed variation. The trends in diversity with time also is different from the global trajectories. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, this is a preservation artifact. Mesozoic terrestrial basins in India were receiving sediment only episodically. Depositional phases were interrupted by erosional hiatuses. Rock sections thus have been removed as well.   There was little to no sedimentation from Mid-Jurassic to Mid-Cretaceous in the Narmada rift basins. Hence, no fossils either. The lost diversity from this interval is irretrievable.

The second reason gives more hope. A couple of years ago, Dr. Dhananjay Mohabey of the Geological Survey of India gave a talk in Pune on Late Cretaceous dinosaurs of India. He mentioned that there are roomful of dinosaur fossils in government archives that are yet to be studied and catalogued. There is scope then to enhance our understanding of at least late Cretaceous dinosaur diversity of India.

I have barely scratched the surface. There are many more stories and patterns and trends in the Indian fossil record waiting to be teased out from this database. Dive in!

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Comments On The 1.6 Billion Year Old Red Algae From Central India

The Proterozoic Vindhyan sedimentary basin in Central India contains sediments ranging in age from 1.7 billion years to about 600 million years ago. Bengtson and colleagues report three dimensional preservation of cellular structures which they interpret as multicellular red algae. These fossils have been found in the Tirohan Dolomite dated to about 1. 6 billion years. Before this discovery, the earliest fossils of multicellular eukaryotes was the rhodophyte Bangiomorpha, dated to about 1.2 billion years.

The Tirohan Dolomite is exposed in the Chitrakoot region of Madhya Pradesh. The fossils occur in patches of carbonate sediment which was replaced by the calcium phosphate mineral apatite just after their deposition in a shallow marine setting. Phosphotization is often a very delicate process enablng the preservation of fragile cell structures.

Here is a picture of the cellular structures of red algae imaged by SEM (scanning electron microscope)

Source: Bengtson 2017

And another rendering of the three dimensional structure of the red algae imaged using Synchrotron-Radiation X-ray Tomographic Microscopy (SRXTM). The green objects inside the cell are interpreted to be organelles, components of eukaryotic cells which aid in different physiological functions. Prokaryotes (Bacteria) lack such organelles.

Source: Bengtson 2017

I don't want to dwell on this study too much. The paper is open access for those who want to explore further.

There are two side stories that I want to comment upon.

First. The Tirohan Dolomite and its fossil assemblage has a controversial past.

They were discovered about twenty years ago by Dr Rafat Azmi, a paleontologist working with the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology. He reported from the Rohtasgarh area in 1998 a rich trove of filamentous and spherical forms, and odd shaped mineral fragments. He interpreted the mineral fragments as "small shelly fossils" representing fragments of animal shells and the spherical forms as possible animal embryos. Later in 2006 he reported tubular forms which he interpreted as Cambrian animal taxa. The problem was that animals are thought to have evolved by the latest Neoproterozoic- early Cambrian (600 mya -540 mya), while the understanding then was that the Tirohan Dolomite is likely 1 billion to 1.5 billion years old. Azmi's interpretation carried two enormous implications; either a) the Tirohan Dolomite was much younger in age. This would have required a major revision of the ages of Vindhyan sediments or b) that the rocks were old (~1.5 billion years), but that animals evolved much earlier than the current fossil record indicated.

These very significant implications caught the attention of geologists and media alike. The Geological Society of India sent a team to investigate Dr. Azmi's claims. They reported that they were unable to find the fossils Dr. Azmi had claimed to have found.

 Memories of an earlier scandal in Indian palaeontology were still fresh. In the late 1980's Vishwajit Gupta of Punjab University was found guilty of fraud and plagiarism. He had been misreporting fossil discoveries from the Himalayas by using museum specimens from all over the world. He had  constructed an entirely fake narrative of Himalayan fossils and stratigraphy. Scientific journals were forced to retract his papers. The Paleontological Society of India produced a book authored by S. K Shah titled "The Himalayan Fossil Fraud".  Punjab University, disgracefully, allowed Dr. Gupta to remain in service till he retired in 2004.

Under this shadow, Azmi's fossils came under similar suspicion. Fortunately, Bengtson and colleagues in a study some years later confirmed that these fossils do exist in the Tirohan Dolomite. However, they sampled the Tirohan Dolomite at Chitrakoot and not its stratigraphic equivalent (Rohtas limestone) at Rohtasgarh where Dr. Azmi's initial claims came from. They established using absolute radiometric dating that the Tirohan Dolomite is 1.6 billion years old. And they showed that the forms, similar to those Dr. Azmi found, are not multicellular animals. The spherical forms were all likely gas bubbles. Some of the larger tubular forms were revealed in the present study as red algae. Animal evolution didn't take place that early after all. The claim of the "small shelly fossils" has not been resolved fully. Bengtson and colleagues work doesn't address them. Some other researchers though have interpreted them as non-biogenic mineral growths. The stratigraphy and broader fossil content of the Rohtas limestone from where Azmi collected his fossils firmly indicates that it is not Cambrian but Proterozoic in age. .  In this present paper, these scientists have named one of the red algal forms Rafatazmia chitrakootensis in honor of Dr. Razat Azmi.

The second comment I have is on multicellularity. These red algae are the oldest multicelluar eukaryotes found anywhere. Plants, Fungi, Protists (amoebas) are eukaryotes.  They share a common eukaryote ancestor which was unicellular. That means there was just one origin of the eukaryotic cell type. However, multicellularity has evolved many times independently in different branches of the eukaryote family.

Multicellularity comes in different flavors. In simple forms of multicellularity, organisms are made up of sheets and aggregates of cells sticking to one another. There is differentiation of somatic and reproductive cells. Communication between cells is limited. One important aspect is that all the cells are in direct contact with the environment, since in these organisms, nutrient transfer takes place by diffusion from the environment to the cell. More complex types of multicellularity require the evolution of not just cell to cell adhesion, but elaborate cell to cell communication systems and a division of labor i.e. cells specialized for different functions. Also, these organisms have a three dimensional arrangement of cells wherein only few cell types are in direct contact with the environment. Diffusion is not efficient enough to supply internal cells with all the necessary life support. Molecular conduits and tissues that facilitate bulk transport and circulation of nutrients need to evolve to build this type of multicellularity.

The figure below shows the many origins of the complex type of multicellularity (in red) in different eukaryotes branches.

Source: Andrew H Knoll 2011

Based on cell type, life is divided into two domains. The Prokaryotes (Bacteria and Archaea) have smaller simpler cells. Eukaryotes are generally larger and are made up of more complex cells. This cell type evolved by a symbiotic merger between two types of prokaryote cells. Prokaryote fossils have been found in rocks older than 3 billion years. The eukaryote fossil record begins in rocks younger than 2 billion years. The timing of the origin of eukaryotes is unclear. Estimates range from  2.5 billion to 1.5 billion years ago. These red algae fossils show that eukaryotes had already diverged into different branches by 1.6 billion years ago, which means that the unicellular ancestor of eukaryotes evolved before that. It also means that red algae took the road to multicellularity much earlier than animals.

Does complexity evolve necessarily whenever genetic potential is available or does it depend on ecologic opportunity? If the cellular machinery and the underlying genetic regulatory systems required for multicellularity evolved in the ancestors of red algae by 1.6 billion years ago, why did multicellular animals not evolve earlier as well? It could well be that there were ecologic conditions limiting the evolution of physiologically demanding creatures like animals. The end of Neoproterozoic ice-ages by about 650 million years ago and the break up of supercontinent Rodinia impacted sea water chemistry. Sea water oxygen increased to threshold levels permitting a more active life style. Increased weathering of continents brought into the oceans metals like zinc which are crucial for physiological functions. Creation of larger continental shelves and shallow water zones due to continental breakup provided varied ecologic spaces for diversification. Animal evolution was triggered in this ecological context.