– SEPTEMBER 28, 2021
National Academies back ‘bold’ research projects by early-career scientists
Sylvia Dee, an assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences at Rice University, has won one of eight national early-career fellowships to pursue research that relates to the changing ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico.
Dee was selected for the environmental protection and stewardship track of the 2021 Early-Career Research Fellowship (ECRF), announced by the Gulf Research Program (GRP) of the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine.
The Gulf is home to a wide variety of ecosystems including estuaries, oyster reefs, beaches and dunes, mangroves and offshore shoals and banks. Dee and her students focus their study on coral reefs, which are critically threatened in the Gulf. These fragile ecosystems continue to shift with climate change, urbanization and increased demand for food, water and energy. Predicting and anticipating these changes is essential to allocating natural resources in an equitable way while protecting the environment, according to the GHP.
The fellows will investigate specific issues related to Gulf ecosystems and produce research that helps enhance environmental protection and stewardship.
“This fellowship will be critical for supporting research in coral reef risk forecasting and mitigation,” Dee said. “Since moving to Texas, I’ve increasingly focused on local issues, and our coral reefs are critical to the ecosystem services we rely on in Houston. The grant will help us build capacity to predict, map and work with our collaborators at the Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary to protect the unique coral reefs in the Gulf of Mexico.”
The ECRF award is not attached to a specific project, which allows fellows to take on bold research they might not otherwise be able to pursue. All of the fellows are investigators, faculty members, clinician scientists or scientific team leads at colleges, universities and research institutions. Each of them will receive a $76,000 award, mentoring support and a built-in community of current and past cohorts.
“The opportunity to collaborate and interact with other early-career fellows is really exciting,” Dee said. “Our meetings provide us time to branch off into teams to identify research solutions by reaching across disciplines to work on a common problem. The mentoring component spans everything from work-life balance to networking. And in that way, the program really is designed to help us not only launch critical research, but also develop and grow as scientists and scholars.”
“Research that enhances environmental protection and stewardship requires both multidisciplinary thinking and the ability to build strong relationships with decision-makers,” said Karena Mary Mothershed, senior program manager for the GRP’s Board on Gulf Education and Engagement. “These exceptional fellows embody those qualities through their perseverance, creativity and inventiveness. One of the most unique aspects of the ECRF is that it supports people, not projects — and we’re excited to be a part of our fellows’ continued success and professional growth.”
The National Academies’ Gulf Research Program is an independent, science-based program founded in 2013 as part of legal settlements with the companies involved in the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster. Its goal is to enhance offshore energy system safety and protect human health and the environment by catalyzing advances in science, practice and capacity, generating long-term benefits for the Gulf of Mexico region and the nation.
– SEPTEMBER 7, 2021
Paleo storm hunters at Rice need data to refine the record of history’s hurricanes
Atlantic hurricanes don’t just come and go. They leave clues to their passage through the landscape that last centuries or more. Rice University scientists are using these natural archives to find signs of storms hundreds of years before satellites allowed us to watch them in real time.
Postdoctoral fellow Elizabeth Wallace, a paleotempestologist who joined the lab of Rice climate scientist Sylvia Dee this year, is building upon techniques that reveal the frequency of hurricanes in the Atlantic basin over millennia.
Paleoclimate hurricane data (or ‘proxy’ data) is found in archives like tree rings that retain signs of short-term flooding, sediments in blue holes (marine caverns) and coastal ponds that preserve evidence of sand washed inland by storm surges. These natural archives give researchers a rough idea of when and where hurricanes have come ashore.
In a new paper in Geophysical Research Letters, Wallace, Dee and co-author Kerry Emanuel, a climate scientist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, take hundreds of thousands of “synthetic” storms spun up from global climate model simulations of the past 1,000 years and examine whether or not they are captured by the vast network of Atlantic paleohurricane proxies.
Reconstructing the past will help scientists understand the ebb and flow of Atlantic hurricanes over time. Previous studies by Wallace and others have demonstrated that a single site capturing past storms cannot be used to reconstruct hurricane climate changes; however, a network of proxies might help refine models of how these storms are likely to be affected by climate change going forward.
“These paleo hurricane proxies allow us to reconstruct storms into the past, and we’re using them to figure out how basin-wide storm activity has changed,” said Wallace, a Virginia native who earned her doctorate at MIT and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution last year and connected with Dee when the professor spoke there in 2017.
“If I have a sediment core from Florida, it’s only capturing storms that hit Florida,” she said. “I wanted to see if we can use the full collection of records collected from the Bahamas, the East Coast and the Gulf of Mexico over the past few decades to accurately reconstruct basin-wide storm activity over the last few centuries.”
The synthetic storms they built helped illustrate what Wallace already knew: There’s a bias toward the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico, and a need for more proxies along the east coasts of North and Central America. The Rice team’s quest going forward will be to refine their climate simulations and add more sites to the networks to better reconstruct past hurricane activity.
“In particular, there aren’t really any sites from the Southeast U.S., places like the Carolinas,” she said. “One of the goals of this work is to highlight where scientists should go to core next.”
Wallace has first-hand experience drilling cores. “During a storm event, you get high winds and waves that take the sand from the beach and essentially just throw it back into a coastal pond,” she said. “Only during storm events do these sand layers get deposited in the pond, and in the sediment cores you can see them interspersed with the fine mud that’s typically there. We can date these sand layers and know when a hurricane struck the site.”
She noted there has not yet been an “intensive” effort to compare sediment and tree ring records. “The tree record is still an uncertain proxy,” Wallace said. “We’re looking for tree ring records with rainfall signatures that correspond to storms going over the past 200 or 300 years that match the sediment records for that same interval.”
Dee said the work is fundamentally different from the paleoclimate models she most often studies. “Here we’re taking climate models and generating hundreds of pseudo-tropical storms,” she said. “We’re ‘playing Gaia’ by making a plausible version of reality and combining it with our knowledge of available proxy sites.
“This tells us how many records from how many places we realistically need to capture a climate signal,” Dee said. “It’s really expensive to go out and drill cores, and this helps give us a way to prioritize where to drill.
“This research is crucial as we accelerate into a climate mean state with ever-warmer Atlantic Ocean temperatures,” she said. “Understanding how these storms have evolved over time provides a baseline against which to evaluate tropical cyclones with and without human impacts on the climate system.”
A Pan Postdoctoral Research Fellowship and Rice Academy Fellowship to Wallace and a Gulf Research Program grant to Dee supported the study. Dee is an assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences. Emanuel is the Cecil & Ida Green Professor of Atmospheric Science and co-director of the Lorenz Center at MIT.
Sylvia Dee, assistant professor of Earth, environmental and planetary sciences, authored an article about the work of American scientist Eunice Foote, who published a paper that documented the underlying cause of today’s climate change crisis.
(This article originally appeared in The Conversation and was included in a previous edition of Dateline. It has also appeared in more than 10 other media outlets since then and was in the July 23 print edition of the Houston Chronicle.)
– JUNE 17, 2021
Department of Energy grant backs development of Jonathan Ajo-Franklin’s fiber-optic monitors
Rice University geoscientists and their colleagues will develop sophisticated fiber-optic sensors and seismic sources to find and evaluate small faults deep underground at sites that store carbon dioxide (CO2) to keep it out of the atmosphere.
The Department of Energy has awarded Rice geoscientist Jonathan Ajo-Franklin $1.2 million to adapt his lab’s distributed acoustic sensing (DAS) method to monitor storage sites where reactivation of small faults could allow leakage into adjacent groundwater or the atmosphere. The project is part of $4 million in grants announced in late May to enhance the safety and security of CO2 storage.
Capturing CO2 and sequestering it underground, often in former oil and gas reservoirs, is seen as a way to bring the nation closer to its goal of net-zero carbon emissions by 2050.
“Moving forward, we need to focus on reducing emissions, even while fossil fuels are still part of the mix,” Ajo-Franklin said. “Geologic carbon storage has always been viewed as a stopgap solution during the energy transition, but if we can delay emissions for hundreds to thousands of years by keeping it underground, that’s a win.”
The Rice project, with collaborators at Pennsylvania State University and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, aims to enhance Department of Energy-funded technologies known collectively as “continuous active source seismic monitoring” with DAS, which employs fiber-optic sensors permanently installed in boreholes at storage sites.
The sensors would provide better resolution of seismic property changes at a lower cost than current techniques, Ajo-Franklin said. Distributing multiple sensors at an installation would enable the detection of mechanical changes in the rock that could impact a reservoir.
“Surface seismology is actually pretty good at finding faults in sedimentary systems,” he said. “That’s what a lot of oil and gas exploration is built around. We’re trying to understand what it looks like if you pressurize a small fault and cause flow along it. To do a good study, we need to reactivate a fault.”
The Rice team is well ahead of the game, with plans to test the ability of DAS to detect small seismic ruptures at an underground geological laboratory in Switzerland. “Mont Terri has an easily accessible fault within a shale formation that we can pressurize with CO2 and image a rupturing fault patch as it slips in a controlled way.”
Building on his research at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where researchers employed undersea telecommunication cable to measure earthquakes for a study in Science, Ajo-Franklin and his group have also drilled three instrumented wells in an out-of-the-way spot on the Rice campus for long-duration tests of their instruments and how they compare to more traditional seismic sensors called geophones.
Ajo-Franklin said federal tax credits enacted in recent years have made carbon sequestration more viable, especially at sites with what he called “clean CO2 streams” that need little processing before injecting back into the ground.
“Until very recently, there wasn’t a reasonable tax or other monetary incentive for companies to do capture and injection,” he said. “They’re not going to do it for free, because the capital investments are very large.”
He noted CO2 storage could become big business in Texas, where tapped-out reservoirs abound. “Luckily, there are plenty of reservoirs on the Gulf Coast that have already been explored for oil and gas production and are very permeable,” he said.
MIKE WILLIAMS – MAY 10, 2021
Rice scientists attribute Earth’s nitrogen to rapid growth of moon- to Mars-sized bodies
The prospects for life on a given planet depend not only on where it forms but also how, according to Rice University scientists.
Planets like Earth that orbit within a solar system’s Goldilocks zone, with conditions supporting liquid water and a rich atmosphere, are more likely to harbor life. As it turns out, how that planet came together also determines whether it captured and retained certain volatile elements and compounds, including nitrogen, carbon and water, that give rise to life.
In a study published in Nature Geoscience, Rice graduate student and lead author Damanveer Grewal and Professor Rajdeep Dasgupta show the competition between the time it takes for material to accrete into a protoplanet and the time the protoplanet takes to separate into its distinct layers — a metallic core, a shell of silicate mantle and an atmospheric envelope in a process called planetary differentiation — is critical in determining what volatile elements the rocky planet retains.
Nitrogen-bearing, Earth-like planets can be formed if their feedstock material grows quickly to around moon- and Mars-sized planetary embryos before separating into core-mantle-crust-atmosphere, according to Rice University scientists. If metal-silicate differentiation is faster than the growth of planetary embryo-sized bodies, then solid reservoirs fail to retain much nitrogen and planets growing from such feedstock become extremely nitrogen-poor. (Credit: Illustration by Amrita P. Vyas/Rice University)
Using nitrogen as proxy for volatiles, the researchers showed most of the nitrogen escapes into the atmosphere of protoplanets during differentiation. This nitrogen is subsequently lost to space as the protoplanet either cools down or collides with other protoplanets or cosmic bodies during the next stage of its growth.
This process depletes nitrogen in the atmosphere and mantle of rocky planets, but if the metallic core retains enough, it could still be a significant source of nitrogen during the formation of Earth-like planets.
Dasgupta’s high-pressure lab at Rice captured protoplanetary differentiation in action to show the affinity of nitrogen toward metallic cores.
“We simulated high pressure-temperature conditions by subjecting a mixture of nitrogen-bearing metal and silicate powders to nearly 30,000 times the atmospheric pressure and heating them beyond their melting points,” Grewal said. “Small metallic blobs embedded in the silicate glasses of the recovered samples were the respective analogs of protoplanetary cores and mantles.”
Rice University graduate student Damanveer Grewal, left, and geochemist Rajdeep Dasgupta discuss their experiments in the lab, where they compress complex mixtures of elements to simulate conditions deep in protoplanets and planets. In a new study, they determined that how a planet comes together has implications for whether it captures and retains the volatile elements, including nitrogen, carbon and water, essential to life. (Credit: Tommy LaVergne/Rice University)
Using this experimental data, the researchers modeled the thermodynamic relationships to show how nitrogen distributes between the atmosphere, molten silicate and core.
“We realized that fractionation of nitrogen between all these reservoirs is very sensitive to the size of the body,” Grewal said. “Using this idea, we could calculate how nitrogen would have separated between different reservoirs of protoplanetary bodies through time to finally build a habitable planet like Earth.”
Their theory suggests that feedstock materials for Earth grew quickly to around moon- and Mars-sized planetary embryos before they completed the process of differentiating into the familiar metal-silicate-gas vapor arrangement.
In general, they estimate the embryos formed within 1-2 million years of the beginning of the solar system, far sooner than the time it took for them to completely differentiate. If the rate of differentiation was faster than the rate of accretion for these embryos, the rocky planets forming from them could not have accreted enough nitrogen, and likely other volatiles, critical to developing conditions that support life.
“Our calculations show that forming an Earth-size planet via planetary embryos that grew extremely quickly before undergoing metal-silicate differentiation sets a unique pathway to satisfy Earth’s nitrogen budget,” said Dasgupta, the principal investigator of CLEVER Planets, a NASA-funded collaborative project exploring how life-essential elements might have come together on rocky planets in our solar system or on distant, rocky exoplanets.
Rice University geochemists analyzed experimental samples of coexisting metals and silicates to learn how they would chemically interact when placed under pressures and temperatures similar to those experienced by differentiating protoplanets. Using nitrogen as a proxy, they theorize that how a planet comes together has implications for whether it captures and retains volatile elements essential to life. (Credit: Tommy LaVergne/Rice University)
“This work shows there’s much greater affinity of nitrogen toward core-forming metallic liquid than previously thought,” he said.
The study follows earlier works, one showing how the impact by a moon-forming body could have given Earth much of its volatile content, and another suggesting that the planet gained more of its nitrogen from local sources in the solar system than once believed.
In the latter study, Grewal said, “We showed that protoplanets growing in both inner and outer regions of the solar system accreted nitrogen, and Earth sourced its nitrogen by accreting protoplanets from both of these regions. However, it was unknown as to how the nitrogen budget of Earth was established.”
“We are making a big claim that will go beyond just the topic of the origin of volatile elements and nitrogen, and will impact a cross-section of the scientific community interested in planet formation and growth,” Dasgupta said.
Rice undergraduate intern Taylor Hough and research intern Alexandra Farnell, then a student at St. John’s School in Houston and now an undergraduate at Dartmouth College, are co-authors of the study.
NASA grants, including one via the FINESST program, and a Lodieska Stockbridge Vaughn Fellowship at Rice supported the research.
– APRIL 21, 2021
Grant will push study of atmospheric ‘blocking events’ that cause extreme weather
Remember Hurricane Harvey? Look west and there was an atmospheric block. Remember the Great Freeze of 2021? Look north and there was a block.
Atmospheric blocking is known to cause or exacerbate extreme weather events, but much about them remains a mystery. Rice University fluid dynamicist Pedram Hassanzadeh has won a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER Award to study these events with an eye toward better understanding the physics behind their complex mechanics.
CAREER grants are awarded to fewer than 400 early career engineers and scientists each year who are expected to make significant impact in their disciplines.
The five-year, $735,000 award will allow Hassanzadeh and his lab to study blocks, which are large-scale, quasi-stationary, high-pressure systems that persist from five days to a few weeks in the middle latitudes between 40 and 60 degrees. In the northern hemisphere, this includes most of the United States and Canada.
“The main component of the middle latitude atmosphere is the jet stream of strong, turbulent winds in the first 10 kilometers of the atmosphere that generally go from west to east,” said Hassanzadeh, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at Rice’s Brown School of Engineering. “They can be pretty fast, about 100 miles per hour on average, and you see them as wavy lines on the weather.
“The news also shows you high- and low-pressure systems, and generally these systems move and local weather changes daily,” he said. “But sometimes these high-pressure systems stop moving. They get stuck. And when that happens for more than five days, they’re called blocking events.”
They can wreak havoc, prompting heat waves and cold spells. “In 2010, there was a heatwave over Russia that lasted for a month and killed thousands,” Hassanzadeh said. “In 2003, there was one in France. And specifically for Houston, one reason Harvey didn’t move was because a blocking event over the western U.S., with clockwise circulation, prevented it from moving up. This year, during the cold snap, there was a blocking event over Canada.
“These events show up a lot in association with extreme weather but their dynamics are still not well-understood, even though people have been looking at them since the 1940s,” Hassanzadeh said. Poor understanding of the dynamics of blocks has hindered decades of effort focused on improving the prediction of extreme events and projecting how these events might change in the future, he said.
Blocks are thought to involve complex interactions between small and large turbulent swirling flows, and understanding them requires novel methods and approaches, Hassanzadeh said. His group has been developing such methods for atmospheric turbulence and extreme events.
An earlier study from his group used climate models to suggest blocking events in the northern hemisphere will become as much as 17% larger due to anthropogenic climate change.
Hassanzadeh also won one of 26 grants from the Office of Naval Research Young Investigator Program in 2020 to pursue improved weather/climate modeling capabilities using deep learning.
The CAREER grant includes funds for a Research Experiences for Teachers program with research positions and workshops for high-school science teachers. The grant will also facilitate the development of materials to teach climate science and a course to introduce college students to climate science and applications of math, advanced computing and artificial intelligence to climate research.
MIKE WILLIAMS – FEBRUARY 26, 2021
Jonathan Ajo-Franklin leads development of monitoring system for DOE’s Utah project
HOUSTON – (Feb. 26, 2021) – Rice University scientists have been tapped to join a Department of Energy project to accelerate breakthroughs in geothermal systems that could someday provide unlimited, inexpensive energy.
Rice geophysicist Jonathan Ajo-Franklin will now enter negotiations to finalize and ultimately lead the three-year project expected to be worth more than $5 million to develop a fiber optic system incorporating seismic and temperature sensing that can withstand high temperatures and provide real-time monitoring of conditions deep underground.
The grant to the Rice-led group includes faculty at California State University, Long Beach, and the University of Oklahoma as well as researchers from Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and industrial scientists from Silixa LLC and Class VI Solutions. The team was one of 17 named by DOE this week to develop a variety of technologies associated with the Utah Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (Utah FORGE). Collectively, the awards by the DOE’s Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy could amount to $46 million.
The concept of Utah FORGE seems simple: Send cold water down, bring hot water back up and use it to generate electricity. But this project differs from similar systems around the world.
Utah FORGE has completed drilling of its first deviated well, a critical step in the enhanced geothermal project backed by the Department of Energy. Rice University scientists have been tapped to join the project to accelerate breakthroughs in geothermal systems that could someday provide unlimited, inexpensive energy. (Credit: Eric Larson)
Utah FORGE has completed drilling of its first deviated well, a critical step in the enhanced geothermal project backed by the Department of Energy. Rice University scientists have been tapped to join the project to accelerate breakthroughs in geothermal systems that could someday provide unlimited, inexpensive energy. Photo by Eric Larson
“The big difference is this is enhanced geothermal,” Ajo-Franklin said. “For traditional geothermal, you need the rock to be permeable so the water can flow through. In enhanced geothermal, you create fractures that allow the flow of water through the system to draw the heat out.
“It’s a little like the difference between normal oil production and unconventional production, like shale,” he said. “But in this case, we’re moving heat, using water as the working fluid.”
Along with managing the grant, Ajo-Franklin’s Rice Environmental and Applied Geophysics Laboratory will design and provide distributed fiber optic sensing resources and instrumentation for the project. Senior Rice personnel involved in the project include postdoctoral fellows Benxin Chi and Feng Cheng.
Some of the work at the facility in Milford, Utah, administered by the University of Utah, is already done, including an injection well completed this year that reaches more than 8,000 feet into the Earth, where the temperature exceeds 442 degrees Fahrenheit. (The wellbore itself is nearly 11,000 feet long, as it deviates 65 degrees at 6,000 feet.) That well extends into the zone Utah FORGE will use as a reservoir, where water will be stored for heating and later recovered via a to-be-drilled second well.
The team’s fibers will be placed in both the production well and a third, vertical well in the middle specifically for monitoring. The fiber optic cable itself will be coated with durable polyimide and encased in steel. Data returned by the sensor system will be used to generate a model of the site’s fracture permeability, which will guide further development of the reservoir.
A Rice University-led team of scientists plans to design and place fiber optic sensor systems into the monitor (center) and production (right) wells at the Utah FORGE geothermal plant under development. (Credit: Rice Environmental and Applied Geophysics Laboratory)
Ajo-Franklin expects the project will spin off technologies of value to geoscience in general. “You can use this technology for many applications where seismic events can help us better understand and image the Earth,” he said. “Fiber is great for that because we can record for long periods of time over long distances, and then use either artificial sources or naturally-occuring noise to generate images of properties underneath it.”
But for now, proving the viability of geothermal energy in the United States is of critical importance, Ajo-Franklin said.
The federal government agrees. “There is enormous untapped potential for enhanced geothermal systems to provide clean and reliable electricity generation throughout the United States,” said Kathleen Hogan, assistant deputy undersecretary for science, in a press release announcing the grants.
“The big thing about geothermal is its baseload capacity,” Ajo-Franklin said. “It’s not a situation where you need to move fuel to the site, because it’s all underground to begin with. And like renewables it doesn’t have a big carbon dioxide footprint, but it’s not intermittent.
“So in comparison to wind and solar, there’s no time when the Earth isn’t hot,” Ajo-Franklin said. “That’s a nice advantage, too.”
Credit: Utah Governor’s Office of Energy Development
Telecom cables offer undersea seismic-sensing bonanza: https://news.rice.edu/2019/11/28/telecom-cables-offer-undersea-seismic-sensing-bonanza/
Rice Environmental and Applied Geophysics Laboratory (Ajo-Franklin lab): https://earthscience.rice.edu/ajo-franklin-lab/
Utah FORGE: https://utahforge.com
Rice Department of Earth, Environmental and Planetary Sciences: https://earthscience.rice.edu
Wiess School of Natural Sciences: https://naturalsciences.rice.edu
– FEBRUARY 19, 2021
Terror, be gone! This happy landing was pure delight.
It remains to be seen how well the Perseverance rover and its helicopter, Ingenuity, perform as they traverse the surface of Mars, but for the moment NASA and Rice geologist Kirsten Siebach are getting a moment to celebrate with the spacecraft’s long-awaited successful landing on Feb. 18.
Siebach and her colleagues gave an hourlong talk and Q&A session via Zoom before the notorious “seven minutes of terror,” during which the spacecraft would be on its own to execute the complex landing sequence to Jezero Crater.
The action shifted to Rice’s Visualization Laboratory, where Siebach shared her reaction to live reports from mission control at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at Caltech with Rice video producer Brandon Martin.
The Perseverance work for Siebach is just beginning as she assumes her duties as a mission specialist tasked with helping operate the rover and scout for samples that will ultimately be brought back to Earth. These, she said, will lead to years of study to determine what Mars is made of, and whether life in any form ever existed there.
In the meantime, she is still studying data from the last rover to land, Curiosity, in 2012. She recently issued a paper that concluded the region’s climate was once like Iceland, and just this week was part of a paper that revealed the chemical contents of aqueous processes on a mixture of amorphous materials found at Gale Crater. That evidence suggests water persisted at Gale Crater for about 1 billion years.