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Living in the Anthropocene: Prospects for Climate, Economics, Health, and Security
9 October 2014
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Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 12, 2014
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Scots in the American West Symposium
8 August 2013
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Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 14, 2013
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The Anthropocene: Planet Earth in the Age of Humans
11 October 2012
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Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 10, 2012
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Perspectives on Limits to Growth: Challenges to Building a Sustainable Planet
March 1, 2012
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Grand Challenges Share Fair
May 18, 2011
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Consortium for Unlocking the Mysteries of the Universe


2011 Grand Challenges Award Projects

Level One Projects


Convective upwelling and volatile fluxing result in melting of the solid mantle. Volcanoes are the surface expression of this process and serve as the conduit for mantle outgassing. Subduction returns dense old oceanic lithosphere, laden with carbonate and sulfide deposits accrued during millions of years of seafloor transit, back down into the Earth.
Convective upwelling and volatile fluxing result in melting of the solid mantle. Volcanoes are the surface expression of this process and serve as the conduit for mantle outgassing. Subduction returns dense old oceanic lithosphere, laden with carbonate and sulfide deposits accrued during millions of years of seafloor transit, back down into the Earth.

Quantifying Volcanic Emissions
In recent decades, scientists have documented the importance of carbon dioxide, sulfur dioxide, and other volatile organic compounds in understanding terrestrial climate, pollution, and atmospheric chemistry. Endeavors related to the carbon budget have largely been devoted to the surficial carbon cycle comprised of carbon exchanges between the atmosphere, ocean, soil, biosphere, and human activity. Yet seventy-five to ninety percent of Earth’s carbon is estimated to reside deep in the Earth. 

Deep carbon and surface carbon exchange via volcanic eruptions and at areas where tectonic plate margins converge. Information is lacking regarding the amount and forms of carbon in deep Earth reservoirs and how they depend on and are correlated with the abundances of other volatile compounds. Remarkably, the magnitude of the flux of volcanic gases from the deep Earth to the atmosphere and ocean are completely unknown. Despite carbon’s importance to science and humanity, we do not know if the deep Earth acts as a net source of carbon or a net sink for carbon.

A partnership between the Deep Carbon Observatory, Smithsonian’s Global Volcanism Program, and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory’s satellite remote-sensing group has the potential to put the first transformative bounds on this problem. This award will fund a workshop that will assess the feasibility of employing satellite technology to quantify volcanic gas emissions globally.

Related Resources

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Elizabeth Cottrell (Principal Investigator)
Ben Andrews
Paul Kimberly

National Museum of Natural History
Kelly Chance
Xiong Liu
Caroline Nowlan
Laurence Rothman
Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory

Level Two Projects

Development of Lava Flow Age-Dating Techniques for Evaluating Age and Climatic Histories of Terrestrial and Martian Eolian Deposits
Accurate methods of dating basalt lava flows are critical to developing eruptive histories of active and ancient volcanoes and to understanding and interpreting volcanically-derived windblown deposits. Eruptions of basalt lava occur very frequently on Earth; similar eruptions were common on ancient Mars when that planet was geologically and volcanically active. Because the surface crusts of lava flows are brittle, they often fragment into sand-sized particles that are transported and deposited by eolian (wind-blown) processes. Further, as those crusts and the particles derived from them are composed primarily of degassed glass that is thermodynamically unstable, they absorb water as a function of time and environmental conditions such as precipitation and temperature. Quantifying hydration of basaltic glass thus offers a tool to date lava flows and interpret ancient climate. Applying this method to wind-blown deposits will permit understanding not only the provenance and age of basaltic dunes, but also the wind regime(s) and climatic histories recorded by the deposits. We will combine expertise in volcanology, eolian processes, and Martian geology to analyze Mauna Loa lava samples and calibrate hydration as a probe of age and climate recorded by terrestrial and Martian basalts and basaltic sediments.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Benjamin Andrews (Principal Investigator)

National Museum of Natural History
Robert Craddock National Air and Space Museum



Satellite-based remote sensing of sulfur emissions from Kilauea volcano
in Hawaii,1994. This project will use satellite-based sensing to measure 
carbon emissions from volcanoes.
Satellite-based remote sensing of sulfur emissions from Kilauea volcano in Hawaii,1994. This project will use satellite-based sensing to measure carbon emissions from volcanoes.

Quantifying Volcanic Emissions
Our understanding of the deep Earth carbon cycle and its relationship to the surface carbon cycle is in its infancy. Despite estimates that 75-90% of Earth’s carbon resides in the deep Earth, we do not know how much volcanic gas flows into the hydrosphere, or whether the deep Earth is a carbon source or sink. Much of this uncertainty is due to the fact that volcanic carbon emissions have never been directly quantified on a time-integrated global scale.

To address this, we will combine Smithsonian expertise in volcanic and atmospheric sciences to assess the potential of satellite-based sensors to remotely monitor volcanic carbon emissions. Our ultimate goal is to identify the pathways and quantify the flow of carbon from the deep Earth to the atmosphere at passively and actively erupting surface volcanoes on a global scale. Atmosphere spectra from satellites will be used to determine detection limits for volcanic carbon emissions. Based on these, we will develop research methodology for quantification of volcanic carbon emissions using data retrieved from high spatial resolution instruments to be launched between 2013 and 2016.

Project Team Collaborating Smithsonian Units
Elizabeth Cottrell (Principal Investigator)
Ben Andrews

National Museum of Natural History
Kelly Chance Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory