The Borderline

Science stories from the Near North

Månad: mars 2016

Does global warming trigger earthquakes?

This is part of an earlier article published in Swedish about a not so immediate threat, but it came to mind after the latest reports of record breaking temperatures.

We don’t have many earthquakes in Scandinavia. But a big crack in the hills of the Lapland region bear witness of the enormous forces that once shook the barren landscape. 9000 years ago a quake ripped the bedrock apart. Tensions in the earth’s crust created a ten-meter high fault 150 kilometres in length. The resulting formation is called Pärvie by the Sami, the word for a breaking wave – a wave of stone that runs through the northern countryside.

Modern geologists estimate the quake that created this rift to a force eight on the Richter scale. That is quite impressive considering that the northern mountains of Sweden are far away from any seismically active zones.

The earthquake was the result of the ice melting at the end of the latest ice age. The rapid climate change freed the earth’s crust from the pressure of billions of tons of ice. The melting glaciers flowed away in grand, wide rapids. Forces that had lain dormant for millennia were set free, and the earth bounced back as the burden eased.

Similar giant quakes could hit us again – after the next future ice age. And we have already begun to prepare for that event.

The final repository for the Swedish nuclear waste is being built in Forsmark, 150 km north of Stockholm. The repository must be able to last for at least one hundred thousand years, a time period when ice caps are expected to come and go, with subsequent strong tremors in the ground. So the repository must be made to survive these so-called post-glacial earthquakes without radioactive leakage.

There is no doubt that major changes in glaciers and ice sheets can create movements in the earth’s crust.

The ice age that ended around 10 000 years ago did not only affect the Swedish North. It also coincides with a period of strong volcanic activity in Iceland, when the pressure on the underground magma eased. And there are traces of large earthquakes associated with the melting of the ice at several locations in North America.

But how sensitive is the Earth’s crust? Can you really say that the relatively moderate climate change that we are seeing now could lead to more earthquakes and volcanic eruptions?

– One must remember that the stress in the crust is always caused by the movement of tectonic plates, says one of Sweden’s leading seismologists, Reynir Bödvarsson at Uppsala University. And those movements are driven by the heat from the earth’s interior. What the ice or water masses can do is move the incidents in time, he says.

Reynir Bödvarsson does not exclude that the stability created by such a thick sheet of ice can make the earth’s crust to store extra energy over time in the form of tensions and make stronger quakes when the pressure disappears. But there will not be more of them.

In southern Alaska one of the Pacific Northern continental plates presses against the coastline. It makes the area around the southern Bering Strait to an area prone to earthquakes. It is also one of the arctic regions on Earth where the climate is changing the fastest. Over the last one hundred years, several glaciers in the area have disappeared and others have lost hundreds of meters in thickness. Two scientists from NASA and the US Geological Survey in 2004 used the GPS data to calculate if this melting of the glaciers was connected to the earthquake with magnitude 7.2 which occurred in 1979. Their conclusion was that the reduced pressure on the plates may well have triggered the quake.

The British volcanologist Bill McGuire at London’s University College has for years warned that even small variations in water levels or ice covers can trigger large reactions from a slumbering earth.

In a study he has shown that the weather phenomenon El Nino has an effect on seismic activity off Easter Island in the Pacific. Differences of some millimetres in the sea level can cause very big variations in the pressure on the sea floor in the deeper areas, which in its turn increases or decreases the friction as the tectonic plates are sliding back and forth.

We know also that volcanoes can be affected by changes in the weather. The low pressures of the North Atlantic winter make the level of the seawaters rise. The higher pressure from the masses of water puts an upward pressure on the magma under volcanoes located along the coast. This is a measurable phenomenon along the coast of Iceland, for example.

– It does, but it is largely on the margin, said Reynir Bödvarsson in Uppsala. The outbreaks would come anyway, but they are affected over time. Bödvarsson is, by the way, Icelander by birth.

So the question remains. Just how sensitive are the seismic forces to climate change? The answer is that we cannot know. Yet.

Big changes can have very serious consequences. Small variations might be significant if they occur in particularly critical areas.

Bill McGuire, the man who looked at the plates by Easter Island, fears that even small amounts of water in the wrong place could trigger a disaster.

1963 the newly constructed Vajont dam in northeastern Italy was filled with water. Today, several geologists believe that it was the pressure of the water that triggered the smaller quakes that made the adjacent hill of Monte Toc to tumble into the dam. The collapse created a two hundred and fifty meter high tidal wave that killed two thousand people.

In India, four years later 180 people died in an earthquake that followed the construction of a dam in Maharashtra state.

Redistributions of large masses can thus sometimes get local seismic effects, and a few centimetres of sea level rise in the ocean may represent a load of several billion tons over a fairly large area.

The place on earth where the largest redistribution of ice and water masses is expected in the foreseeable future is Greenland. Right now between 150 and 300 billion tons of ice per year is disappearing from the island, depending on how and where you measure it. And the rate of melting is accelerating.

The change is most rapid in the low-lying coastal areas.

Nobody knows today how this redistribution of huge masses affects the forces that are bound in the earth’s crust. The melting leads to rising sea levels, and flooding of the coasts. This may lead to landslides, which trigger even more landslides or earthquakes along the continental shelves around the North Atlantic.

– One cannot dismiss the risk that ice melting could trigger major quakes in Greenland, said Reynir Bödvarsson. But they can also be absent. There is no regularity in this, he says.

So how dangerous can it get?

Eight thousand years ago a gigantic landslide under the sea off the coast of Norway created a tsunami that rolled westward across the North Sea. You can still see the traces of the twenty-five meter high waves that drenched the eastern seaboards of Scotland and the Faroe Islands. It was probably a disaster for the Mesolithic peoples living along the coast then.

It is not known what triggered the underwater collapse, but a probable cause was the release of large clathrates of methane that lay under the sea floor.

The huge landslide occurred after a rapid rise in sea levels after the ice cap disappeared from Scandinavia. Is there any risk for a similar event in the future, but this time on the other side of the North Atlantic, the east coast of Greenland, and directed towards Norway? A tsunami induced by climate change.

– It bears thinking about, said Reynir Bödvarsson. You cannot exclude it, but it is no obvious result. There are, as I said, no regularity in these events.

Ok, this might be considered scare mongering. There are more threatening consequences of the ongoing climate change.


The Custodians of Truth

Academics routinely lie and exaggerate when telling funding agencies what impact their research will have, a series of candid interviews with scholars in Britain and Australia has suggested, 
reports Times Higher Education.

Is anyone surprised?

The abstract of the study says it straight out:

”We review attitudes towards pathway to impact statements – formal components of research funding applications, that specify the prospective socio-economic benefits of proposed research – from (n = 50) academics based in the UK and Australia and how the hyper-competitiveness of the Higher Education market is resulting in impact sensationalism and the corruption of academics as custodians of truth.”

The Custodians of Truth are corrupt. Not good. But as a reporter in the field I feel like somewhat of an accomplice. Sensational results with a big impact of course make much better copy than mediocre results with incremental impact. Yes indeed.

But sensational results are very rare. It takes some years in the business to realise that. And it takes years to understand what impact a discovery really will have.

I like that concept, Impact sensationalism. I try to keep it in mind when reading or writing about fusion power, designer babies, artificially intelligent go-players or what-have-you.

But when it comes to grant applications it is impossible to avoid lying, according to an Australian professor.

John Hawks, who comments on the study says:

A true explanation of the scientific value of a project should look much more like good public communication. But good public communication is too often reviled by those who review grants, as insufficiently “scientific” in tone. It’s a catch-22.

And reconnecting to the big issue here in the subarctic lands during the last few weeks: this is how 14 professors and other scientists at Karolinska Institutet explained the immediate and urgent need to recruit Paolo Macchiarini to the institute in a letter to the KI Chancellor in June 2010:

By recruiting Prof M. a growing European network cooperation can blossom. We believe we will  have a working regenerative airway transplantation activity running three months after his employment, at the latest. 

Patients could be recruited nationally, and in a slightly longer perspective, from all of Europe.

With airways as a foundation, the regenerative research activities might be expanded into adjacent fields of transplantation, like lungs. The latter could also in the longer run contribute to strengthening Stockholm’s competence in the field of heart transplants.

This is not exactly an application for grants, but there is clearly the smell of money in the air. A new center for regenerative transplantations (with engineered organs, no less) is in sight. After only three months. This would have given KI the upper hand in the eternal competition with Lund and Gothenburg. So the realistic assessments  went out the window.  And maybe this is also exactly what the recipients of the letter wanted to hear, if we take the new study seriously.



Fraud investigation comes to Gothenburg after Macchiarini.

The reverberations of the Macchiarini-scandal at Karolinska Institutet in Stockholm have now reached the University of Gothenburg (GU). For those who have followed the anonymous reporting on the website Pubpeer during last week it comes as no big surprise. More than ten articles have been posted there showing several cases of irregular and dubious use of images. All of the articles have the same name as main author.

The Dean of Sahlgrenska Akademin, the department at GU for medical research, has now formally reported these cases to the University Chancellor and asks for an investigation of these papers.

The articles concern a number of research topics, mainly about issues touching upon the transplantations of liver, trachea or blood vessels.

In the report to the chancellor , the Dean, Olle Larkö, writes:

“…a close inspection of the suspected deviations confirms that there is cause to proceed with a more meticulous investigation.”

There are particularly two cases where the Dean finds “obvious examples of suspected misconduct”.

These two can be seen at a) where the same image is used first in 2008, and a second time in 2013, with two different descriptions,

and at b) where a similar reuse of images seem to have taken place. Here, the cells in the microscopic image are first described as coming from a biopsy from a patients nose, and then as hepatocytes, liver cells.

To add to the consternation, there is an anonymous report on reuse of the same image a third time.

The GU Chancellor, Pam Fredman, says to medical newspaper Dagens Medicin, that it is extremely important to investigate every aspect of this. But adds that suspicions are not equivalent to a conviction.

That is obviously true. Let the investigation run its course. But the sheer number of cases makes it hard to accept that they all would be the result of mistakes or carelessness. If that is so, what other, as yet undiscovered mistakes, can we expect to find in these and other articles?   Commentators on Pubpeer and Twitter haven’t missed out on the opportunity to gloat and give slightly sarcastic comments on the mix-ups/fraudulent use of the photos. Liver cells migrating to the nose? What next? Are we seeing the wonders of stem cells in action?

After Macchiarini it is indeed easy to be cynical about the ethics in Swedish medical research. And the GU case doesn’t help.

The connections to Macchiarini are there. In the wake of all the post-Macch. investigations at KI, Gothenburg University decided on their part to take a closer look at a tracheal transplant made there in 2008, with a donor trachea seeded with the patients own stem cells. The patient died, according to the case report from heart failure, not connected to the transplant. The main author of the report is the same person now suspected of image manipulation. Her name is Suchitra Sumitran-Holgersson, professor of transplant biology at GU.

The research director at Sahlgrenska University Hospital who initiated this investigation said that the reason was not suspicions of misconduct, but that they wanted to cover all bases and make sure that the ethical rules had been followed. Particularly to clear up the grey area between research and medical care.

Shortly thereafter, the hospital decided to also investigate three more operations where the case reports have professor Sumitran-Holgersson as the last name in the list of authors. These three operations are transplantations of tissue-engineered blood vessels on children, all made in the name of the same medical scientist. The investigations are to be made by prof Bengt Gerdin of Uppsala, the original Macchiarini investigator – a man who has become very busy lately.

It was after the decision to make these post-Macchiarini investigations, on March 1st, that the anonymous reports about the images on Pupeer started to drop in. And they just kept coming.

And the big thundercloud hovering over the whole affair is of course the fact that the same scientist was from 2008 to 2010 the object of a large investigation for misconduct at KI. She was convicted, fired and her grants were frozen. But after a reinvestigation she was later exonerated. Some have called her sentencing a “gross miscarriage of justice”; others say the opposite, that the exoneration was a scandal. Suffice to say; in the world of Swedish medical science it was a very big deal. The affair is still echoing in the halls of both KI and GU. Regardless of which side is right, she has been at GU now for a number of years, done what seems to be very successful work, but which is now being seriously questioned.

Now, those who wanted her punished are convinced they were right all the time.

But, what maybe is more important: if this later work on regenerating tissue, particularly that which claims to create new veins from blood cells, is problematic, what will be the impact on regenerative medicine and the future of organ engineering with stem cells. After Macchiarini one wonders, is there anything there at all?



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