2014 warmest year according the statistics


According to the State of the Climate report seven important climate variables broke records. Ocean surface temperatures were the warmest in 135 years of records; the concentration of the greenhouse gasses carbon dioxide, methane and nitrous oxide in the atmosphere was highest; and for Europe, 2014 was by far the hottest year on record – more than 20 countries broke their national temperature records. Han Dolman (Earth and Climate, Earth Sciences) is one of the co-editors of the report.

400 international scientists
Both the American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the American Meteorological Society commission on a yearly basis the report to keep track on the climatological developments. Guido van der Werf (Earth and Climate, Earth Sciences) is one of the over 400 scientists from 58 countries contributing to the State of the Climate 2014. Van der Werf gave an assessment of the contribution of fire emissions to the overall greenhouse gas emissions.

The report got much attention from the international press.

North Sea
The yearly report also concludes that the northern North Sea was 1.5 degrees Celsius warmer than usual. Mainly due to the hotter ocean surface temperatures, the sea level globally rose 3 millimeters.

The overall conclusion is that climate changes continues, and that the Earth System is warming up at unprecedented speed, with many diverse impacts.

260.000 Euros for Mars Research


The Netherlands Space Office funds a PhD position at the VU University department of Earth Sciences to research Mars.The research proposal of Gareth Davies, Jessica Flahaut and Wim van Westrenen (Geology & Geochemistry cluster) is one of the ten proposals that the Netherlands Space Office (NSO) finances, with a total of 2,4 million Euros. The project focuses on determining the physical and chemical properties of the earliest crust of planet Mars.

: “With the 260.000 Euro funding we aim to combine remote sensing data with the newest generation of geophysical models of the inner parts of Mars. In this way we can identify the different types of rock that form the oldest crust of Mars. Ultimately, this will give us an insight into the processes that created the earliest Martian surface and hopefully help us understand the formation of the other rocky planets in our Solar System .”

The research involves the integration of remote sensing and petrological expertise at the VU with an international team of geophysical modelers in Paris and Toulouse. Data obtained from all past and present missions will be used to develop new models for the initial evolution of Mars (first 100 million years) that led to the formation of the earliest crust. “The project is extremely timely as we will be able to validate the new evolutionary models using the seismology study of the planet’s interior to be conducted towards the end of the decade by NASA’s INSIGHT mission”, says Davies.

Nitrogen: too much of a vital resource


The WWF science brief with lead author Jan Willem Erisman (Professor Integrated Nitrogen Studies, Earth and Climate Cluster) provides an in-depth overview of the nitrogen challenge.

It also explores options to decrease the negative impacts of excess nitrogen on biodiversity and ecosystems, while at the same time providing food security to a growing world population. Potential solutions comprise increasing nitrogen use efficiency in agriculture, reducing waste in the food chain, promoting diets with less animal protein in developed countries and a shift from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy.

Excess nitrogen originating from chemical fertilizers, animal manure and burning of fossil fuels, are increasingly affecting soil, water and air quality. In coastal and marine ecosystems, excess nitrogen levels cause eutrophication. “An estimated 500 estuaries worldwide have turned into ‘dead zones’,” says Jan Willem Erisman. “Much of the terrestrial biodiversity is created as a result of limitations in nitrogen: organisms have adapted to the natural nitrogen poor environments in a wide variety of ways,” he adds. Excess nitrogen levels will change species composition in favour of fewer species that can withstand or thrive in these circumstances. 40% of the protected areas in the world have exceeded critical levels of nitrogen above which there is a risk of biodiversity loss.

World hypoxic and eutrophic coastal areas

Figure 1: World hypoxic and eutrophic coastal areas The map shows three types of eutrophic zones: Documented hypoxic areas – Areas with scientific evidence that hypoxia was caused, at least in part, by an overabundance of nitrogen and phosphorus. Hypoxic areas have oxygen levels low enough to inhibit the existence of marine life. Areas of concern – Systems that exhibit effects of eutrophication. These systems are possibly at risk of developing hypoxia. Systems in recovery – Areas that once exhibited low dissolved oxygen levels and hypoxia, but are now improving. Source:

However, nitrogen also plays an important role in food security. The human creation of chemical nitrogen fertilizer has enabled the production of more food and a change to more protein rich diets. It has been estimated that without chemical nitrogen fertilizer, only 3 billion people would have enough food given current diets and agricultural practices. That’s less than halve of the current global population.

In recognition of the urgent need to address this issue, WWF Netherlands has funded the Professorship of Integrated Nitrogen Studies within the Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences, currently held by prof. dr. Jan Willem Erisman. The Science Brief

Nitrogen Cascade

Nitrogen: toomuch of a vital resource aims to give a state-of-the-art on the nitrogen issues.

Discovery of a new type of seamount chain in the Pacific Ocean


Nature Geoscience article reports a new kind of volcanic chain that might link plate tectonic events around the margins of the Pacific to the unique bend in the Hawaiian–Emperor seamount chain.

Ocean islands, seamounts and volcanic ridges are thought to form above mantle plumes – hot upwellings that probable rise from the core-mantle boundary. Yet, this mechanism cannot explain many volcanic features on the Pacific Ocean floor and some might instead be caused by cracks in the oceanic crust linked to the reorganisation of plate motions. 

An international team that includes visiting researcher John O’Connor, and researcher Jan Wijbrans (Geology and Geochemistry cluster), has found a new type of seamount chain with a geochemical signature that is surprisingly unlike typical ocean island basalts and instead resembles mid-ocean ridge basalts. The authors conclude in their paper that the chains are unrelated to mantle plume activity and probably formed in an extensional setting due to deformation of the Pacific Plate.

Subduction zones are active around the margins of the Pacific causing the ‘Ring of Fire’, the most seismically and volcanically active zone in the world. A major reorganisation of Pacific subduction zones could have deformed the Pacific plate and triggered the chains, while at the same time the Hawaiian–Emperor seamount chain was developing a major 60° bend.


Hawaii-Emperor bend - Image reproduced from the GEBCO world map 2014,

The origin of such a distinctive bend in the Hawaiian–Emperor seamount chain has long puzzled Earth scientists and is explained by changes in the direction of motion of the Pacific Plate or the movement of the Hawaiian plume, or a combination of both.

The research team speculates that the Hawaiian-Emperor bend was formed by a change in the motion of the Hawaiian plume caused by a major reorganisation of the plate-mantle system that was potentially triggered by a series of subduction events at the Pacific Plate margins.

EU grant of € 9.95 M for Europlanet 2020 Research Infrastructure


Gareth Davies (Geology and Geochemistry, Earth Sciences) is one of the coordinators of the Advanced Infrastructure, Europlanet 2020 Research Infrastructure (EPN2020-RI) that has been awarded €9.95 M by the EU.The RI will address key scientific and technological challenges facing modern planetary science by providing open access to state-of-the-art research data, models and facilities across Europe. Its Transnational Access activities will provide access to world-leading laboratory facilities that simulate conditions found on planetary bodies as well as specific analogue field sites for Mars, Europa and Titan.

Davies: “EPN2020-RI builds on the foundations of successful FP6 and FP7 Europlanet programmes. These programmes established the ‘Europlanet brand’ and built structures that will be used in the Networking Activities of EPN2020-RI to coordinate the European planetary science community’s research.” A total of 33 institutions from 17 countries participate in the RI. Funding to the VU will allow international researchers to apply for access to the state-of-the-art isotope geochemical facilities and the experimental petrology lab led by Wim van Westrenen. In addition, funding will allow research to further improve the handling, characterisation and analysis of unique samples such as meteorites and material returned from space missions, such as comets.


False HiRISE colour image showing eroded features at the bottom of Valles Marineris

Ontbossing in kaart gebracht


Richard de Jeu (Aarde en Klimaat) onderzocht met internationale collega’s hoeveel koolstof er wereldwijd in vegetatie is opgeslagen de afgelopen 20 jaar. Ze zagen in deze periode vooral een verlies in de tropische bossen door ontbossing, maar ook een groei in de boreale bossen en savannen. Vanaf 2003 was echter een sterke vermindering van de ontbossing van tropische bossen te zien en een groei van bossen in China en Rusland.

Veranderde wetgeving
Met dit onderzoek en de ontwikkelde dataset kunnen we beter kwantificeren wat de rol van vegetatie op de totale koolstof budget is en direct de gevolgen zien van de verandering van een politiek en maatschappelijk klimaat. Zo is de ontbossing in Brazilië sterk afgenomen door een verandering in wetgeving, maar ook door een verandering van maatschappelijke bewustwording.

Passieve microgolven
De onderzoekers gebruikten satelliet observaties waarbij passieve microgolven sensoren zijn ingezet. De Jeu: “Deze sensoren zijn minder gevoelig voor wolken en geven ons zowel overdag als ‘s nachts informatie. Hierdoor hebben we een zeer nauwkeurig beeld gekregen van de afgelopen 20 jaar.” De gegevens van een serie satellieten zijn samengevoegd om een totaaloverzicht over 20 jaar te krijgen. Deze data zijn met een gekalibreerd model omgezet naar bovengrondse biomassa data. 

Het artikel ‘Recent reversal in global terrestrial biomass loss’ is op 30 maart gepubliceerd in het online tijdschrift Nature Climate Change.

PNAS-artikel over invloed van exploitatie van veengronden op klimaatverandering


Veengronden op het noordelijk halfrond zijn belangrijke gebieden voor koolstof opslag (tot wel 500 gigaton). Door exploitatie en daarmee gepaard gaande waterstandsdaling kunnen deze koolstofvoorraden als CO2 in de atmosfeer terecht komen en een belangrijke bijdrage aan de broeikasgasbalans leveren.

Maar het effect van natte veengronden op de broeikasgas balans is tweeledig, omdat er ook methaan (zo’n 30% van de totale methaanemissies op aarde) wordt uitgestoten. Methaan is een veel krachtiger broeikasgas dan CO2. De methaanemissies zullen juist verminderen bij exploitatie van veengronden. 

Een internationale groep van wetenschappers, onder leiding van oud VU promovenda Roxana Petrescu en VU-wetenschappers Han Dolman en Ko van Huissteden, heeft nu met behulp van metingen en modelberekeningen bepaald wat op het noordelijk halfrond de mogelijke effecten van exploitatie van veengronden kunnen zijn op de broeikasgasbalans. Deze effecten op de broeikasgasbalans kunnen op hun beurt toekomstige klimaatscenario’s beïnvloeden. De studie is deze week gepubliceerd in het vooraanstaande tijdschrift PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences ). 

Belangrijke uitkomsten van het onderzoek zijn dat de koolstofopslag van natte veengronden het, wat betreft klimaateffecten, wint van de methaanuitstoot en dat het slechtste scenario voor klimaateffecten de verandering van natuurlijke veengronden naar landbouw is. Deze resultaten kunnen niet alleen de klimaatscenario’s van het IPCC verbeteren, maar er ligt ook een directe grote verantwoording bij de landgebruikers van veengronden om deze zo klimaat-neutraal als mogelijk te beheren door uitstoot van CO2 en methaan tegen te gaan.

Ocean currents complicate reconstructions of past climate


Reconstruction of the past ocean water temperature, based on shells of micro-plankton from the ocean sediment, to study past climates, has to take into account the transportation of these shells by currents.

Paolo Scussolini, climatologist (Institute of Environmental Studies), and Frank Peeters, marine palaeontologist (Earth and Climate cluster), are part of an international team of researchers that reconstructed the displacement of floating microscopic animals, the planktic foraminifera, in the ocean. Using state-of-the-art computer models of ocean circulation they could simulate, for the first time, the provenance of fossil foraminifera: what they dubbed the “footprint” of a sediment core (see example in the figure). 

Core footprintTheir study in Nature Communications explaines how the team discovered that foraminifera are transported by currents along very long distances, depending on the location, up to thousands of kilometers. The temperature recorded in a sediment cores is therefore not from the ocean above, but from a footprint that is often larger than previously thought, and geographically skewed. This is both a stark warning for paleoceanographers, and a powerful tool to improve the interpretation of climate records.

Shells contain “proxies” of ocean properties
Studying of the climate of the past is essential to understand the climate system, and to predict what the future holds for us. Planktic foraminifera live close to the ocean’s surface, where they “record” the water temperature, and as they die they settle to the ocean’s floor. Here is where paleoceanographers find them, much later, when they dig up cores of sediment, looking for the information still preserved in the shells. Since the 1950’s, the earth’s climate history has been reconstructed from the fossil shells of these organisms.
Still, in decades of research, never were the trajectories of living and settling foraminifera rigorously investigated.

Simulating shells amidst currents in a model
”We know that that the ocean is a turmoil of powerful currents, and that the tiny foraminifera just get carried along with them”, explains Scussolini. “We ran the models after carefully evaluating the traits of these bugs (such as depth of habitat, sinking speed, life span), and we compared the results with analysis of real fossil shells. Our study, a collaboration between European, Australian, and US institutes, is also a successful example of how two research communities, paleoclimatologists and ocean modelers, can join forces to solve a long-standing problem, and move the climate science forward.”

“Ocean currents generate large footprints in marine palaeoclimate proxies”
Erik van Sebille 1,* , Paolo Scussolini 2,#, Jonathan V Durgadoo 3, Frank Peeters 2, Arne Biastoch 3, Wilbert Weijer 4, Chris Turney 1, Claire B. Paris 5, and Rainer Zahn 6
1. ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science & Climate Change Research Centre, School of Biological, Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia
2. Earth and Climate Group, Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences, VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands
3. GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel, Germany
4. Los Alamos National Laboratory, Los Alamos, New Mexico
5. Rosenstiel School for Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami, Florida
6. Institució Catalana de Recerca i Estudis Avançats (ICREA), 08010 Barcelona, Spain and Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona, Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals (ICTA), Departament de Física, 08193 Bellaterra (Cerdanyola), Spain

* Now at: Grantham Institute – Climate Change and the Environment, Imperial College London, United Kingdom
# Now at: Institute for Environmental Studies (IVM), VU University Amsterdam, the Netherlands

Carbon release from the ocean helped to end the Ice Age


A release of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the deep ocean helped bring an end to the last Ice Age, according to new collaborative research in UK, Spain, Australia and The Netherlands. Published in Nature, February 12th, the study shows that carbon stored in an isolated reservoir deep in the Southern Ocean re-connected with the atmosphere, driving a rise in atmospheric CO2 and an increase in global temperatures. The finding gives scientists an insight into how the ocean affects the carbon cycle and climate change. “These results will help to better understanding the dynamics of human-induced CO2 accumulation in the atmosphere since the ocean is an important carbon sink and the largest reservoir of carbon on our planet’ commented co-author Patrizia Ziveri from FALW (Earth and Climate Cluster).

Carbon exchange between ocean and atmosphere
Planktic-foraminifera-Globigerina-bulloides-Photo-by-Mariana-TAtmospheric CO2 levels fluctuate from about 185 parts-per-million (ppm), during ice ages, to around 280 ppm, during warmer periods like the pre-industrial centuries (termed interglacials). The oceans currently contain approximately sixty times more carbon than the atmosphere and that carbon can exchange rapidly (from a geological perspective) between these two systems (atmosphere-ocean).

Joint lead author Dr. Miguel Martínez-Botí from the University of Southampton adds: “The magnitude and rapidity of the swings in atmospheric CO2 across the ice age cycles suggests that changes in ocean carbon storage are important drivers of natural atmospheric CO2 variations.

Joint lead authorDr. Gianluca Marino, from ANU and previously at the ICTA, UAB, says: “We found that very high concentrations of dissolved CO2 in surface waters of the Southern Atlantic Ocean and the eastern equatorial Pacific coincided with the rises in atmospheric CO2 at the end of the last ice age, suggesting that these regions acted as sources of CO2 to the atmosphere”.

“Our findings support the theory that a series of processes operating in the southernmost sector of the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans, a region known as the ‘Southern Ocean’, changed the amount of carbon stored in the deep-sea. While a reduction in communication between the deep-sea and the atmosphere in this region potentially locks carbon away from the atmosphere into the abyss during ice ages, the opposite occurs during warm interglacial periods.”

Composition calcium carbonate shells provides information
The international team studied the composition of the calcium carbonate shells of ancient marine organisms that inhabited the surface of the ocean thousands of years ago in order to trace its carbon content. Co-author Dr. Gavin Foster from the University of Southampton commented: “Just like the way the oceans have stored around 30 per cent of humanity’s fossil fuel emissions over the last 100 years or so, our new data confirms that natural variations in atmospheric CO2 between ice ages and warm interglacials are driven largely by changes in the amount of carbon stored in our oceans.

While these new results support a primary role for the Southern Ocean processes in these natural cycles, we don’t yet know the full story and other processes operating in other parts of the ocean, such as the North Pacific, may have an additional role to play.

Amsterdam Water Science consortium receives AAA funding


The Amsterdam Water Science consortium has received start-up capital from the Amsterdam Academic Alliance (AAA). These funds will give VU University Amsterdam (Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences) and the University of Amsterdam (Faculty of Science, Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics) the opportunity to develop a coherent research and degree programme in collaboration with research institutions, government agencies and businesses in the Amsterdam area.

From river to ocean
Amsterdam Water Science is a unique programme focusing on water sciences in the Netherlands. It integrates research from more than 110 full-time researchers at VU University Amsterdam (VU) and the University of Amsterdam (UvA) who work on the biological, chemical and physical processes in water systems (marine life, water quality, flooding and droughts). One of the topics of interest in this research programme is how extremes influence the community and what measures government and the private sector can take in order to manage the quality of water, flood risks and water shortages.

Natural and social sciences
The programme combines natural sciences such as aquatic ecology, oceanography, ecohydrology and meteorology with social sciences such as water economics and water governance. Research currently takes place across a wide range of international research projects in collaboration with leading universities in Europe, Japan and the USA, and is funded through 14 major research grants (ERC and NWO Vici, Vidi & Veni).

Amsterdam: testing ground for research and education
Amsterdam Water Science's philosophy is to interweave research projects with degree programmes and to initiate research together with stakeholders in the Amsterdam region. The city of Amsterdam and its water-rich surrounding areas will serve as a testing ground for research and education. The programme has access to a number of state-of-the-art laboratories and measurement programs that use sensors in satellites and drones, and participates in a variety of Bachelor's and Master's programmes in biology, earth sciences and water sciences. The investment in sustainable collaboration with institutions in the Amsterdam region will also enhance students' career prospects.   

Three core tasks
Amsterdam Water Science revolves around three core activities:
1) Investment in research into CO2 management and algae growth in the IJsselmeer region and into trends in climate extremes (droughts and flooding) in the city of Amsterdam.
2) Reinforcement of existing Bachelor's and Master's programmes and development of new degree programmes to train a new generation of water scientists and help them navigate the complex web of water processes and social issues.
3) An investment programme incorporating six to eight pilot projects in which researchers and end users in Amsterdam develop long-term collaborative water research with clear questions and end products. Examples include developing methods for ensuring water quality for the drinking-water sector and fishing industry, and estimating water damage caused by extreme weather for municipal authorities and insurers.

About the Amsterdam Academic Alliance
The Amsterdam Academic Alliance (AAA) is a joint initiative of the two Amsterdam-based universities – VU and the UvA – aimed at intensifying collaboration with each other and with other knowledge institutions in the region. The objective of the AAA is to cement Amsterdam's position as a major international player and hub of academic excellence. The alliance is to result in different outcomes in each scientific field.

Oldest ever engraving discovered on 500-year-old shell


Archeologists, among who are VU researchers Dr. José Joordens en Prof. Jan Wijbrans, report on this in Nature (3 December 2014). The discovery provides new insights into the evolution of human behaviour.

> Video by José Joordens: How did Homo erectus open a mussel shell?

Not only Homo sapiens made engravings
“Until this discovery, it was assumed that comparable engravings were only made by modern humans (Homo sapiens) in Africa, starting about 100,000 years ago,” says lead author José Joordens, researcher at the Faculty of Archaeology at Leiden University.

The 'Pseudodon shell' fossil with the engraving made by Homo erectus op Trinil. (Photo: Wim Lustenhouwer, VU University Amsterdam)
The 'Pseudodon shell' fossil with the engraving made by Homo erectus op Trinil. (Photo: Wim Lustenhouwer, Vrije Universiteit)

The shell collection of Eugène Dubois
A team of 21 researchers studied hundreds of fossil shells and associated finds and sediments from the Homo erectus site Trinil, on the Indonesian island of Java. The shells are part of the Dubois Collection that has been held at the Naturalis Biodiversity Center since the end of the 19th century. The shells were excavated by the Dutch physician and researcher Eugène Dubois, the discoverer of Pithecanthropus erectus - now known as Homo erectus.

Engravings older than weathering
The discovery of an engraved geometrical pattern on one of the shells came as a total surprise. The zig zag pattern, that can only be seen with oblique lighting, is clearly older than the weathering processes on the shell arising from fossilisation. The study has excluded the possibility that the pattern could have been caused by animals or by natural weathering processes and shows that the ‘zigzag’ pattern is the work of Homo erectus.

A. Shell tool, made by Homo erectus. B. Detail of the sharp edge used for cutting or etching.
A. Shell tool, made by Homo erectus. B. Detail of the sharp edge used for cutting or etching. (Photo: Francesco d'Errico, Bordeaux University)

Five hundred thousand years old
By applying two dating methods, researchers at the VU University Amsterdam and Wageningen University have determined that the shell with the engraving is minimally 430,000 and maximally 540,000 years old.This means that the engraving is at least four times older than the previously oldest known engravings, found in Africa.

Purpose or meaning of the engraving?
“It’s fantastic that this engraved shell has been discovered in a museum collection where it has been held for more than a hundred years. I can imagine people may be wondering whether this can be seen as a form of early art,” says Wil Roebroeks, Professor of Palaeolithic Archaeology at Leiden University. He was able to finance this long-term research with his NWO Spinoza Prize. “At the moment we have no clue about the meaning or purpose of this engraving.”

Early human-like mussel collector
This research has shown that these early human-like people were very clever about how they opened these large freshwater mussels; they drilled a hole through the shell using a sharp object, possibly a  shark’s tooth, exactly at the point where the muscle is attached that keeps the shell closed. “The precision with which these early humans worked indicates great dexterity and detailed knowledge of mollusc anatomy,” says Frank Wesselingh, a researcher and expert on fossil shells at Naturalis. The molluscs were eaten and the empty shells were used to manufacture tools, such as knives.

José Joordens holding the Pseudodon shell with the drill hole.Nieuw: Component
José Joordens holding the Pseudodon shell with the drill hole. The opening was made by Homo erectus to open the shell. (Photo: Henk Caspers, Naturalis)

Possible follow-on research
This discovery from the historical Dubois collection sheds unexpected new light on the skills and behaviour of Homo erectus, and indicates that Asia is a promising and, so far, relatively unexplored area for finding intriguing artefacts.

From the Netherlands, researchers at Leiden University, the Naturalis Biodiversity Center, the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the universities of Wageningen and Delft and the Cultural Heritage Agency of the Netherlands were involved in the research.

Joordens J.C.A., et al.Homo erectus at Trinil on Java used shells for tool product i on and engraving, Nature 10.1038/nature19362.

This research is being financed by research funding from the NWO Spinoza Prize.

The shell with the oldest known human engraving will be on display in the Naturalis museum from 4 December onward.

How did Homo erectus open a mussel shell? Video by José Joordens.

Jean Baptiste Lamarck medal for Wolfgang Schlager


Wolfgang SchlagerWolfgang Schlager is Emeritus Professor of Marine Geology/Sedimentology at the department of Earth Sciences at VU University Amsterdam. He will be awarded the Jean Baptiste Lamarck Medal by the European Geosciences Union (EGU) for his outstanding contributions to the Earth Sciences.

Schlager has contributed to a large extent to carbonate sedimentology, especially the contrast between carbonates and siliciclastics in a sequence stratigraphic framework. In his book "Carbonate Sedimentology and Sequence Stratigraphy" (SEPM Concepts in Sedimentology and Paleontology #8), published in 2005, he presented new concepts on carbonate sedimentology that are still being used today. The published work of Wolfgang Schlager and his co-athors was cited over 3.000 times (without self-citations!), making him one of the most frequently cited sedimentary geologists.
The Jean Baptiste Lamarck Medal is established by the EGU Division on Stratigraphy, Sedimentology and Paleontology in recognition of the scientific achievement of Jean Baptiste Lamarck. It is reserved for scientists for their exceptional contributions to either Stratigraphy, Sedimentology or Paleontology. The medal is awarded each year, alternating between the three subdivisions, so that each third year a Stratigrapher, Sedimentologist or Paleontologist will be awarded.
Schlager will receive his prize at the EGU 2015 General Assembly, which will take place in Vienna on 12–17 April.

Eddy Moors Endowed Professor of Water and Climate


Eddy MoorsAs from 1 September 2014, Eddy Moors has been appointed Endowed Professor of Water and Climate at VU University Amsterdam. The chair will be embedded at the Earth and Climate cluster of the Faculty of Earth and Life Sciences. Eddy Moors currently heads the department Climate Change and Adaptive Land & Water Management at Alterra (WageningenUR). He will work at the VU for one day per week.

Eddy Moors has a PhD on land surface atmosphere interactions with a special focus on water use, obtained at VU Amsterdam in 2012. After working for the World Meteorological Organization in Africa and the Caribbean he moved to Wageningen University, from where he later transferred to Alterra WageningenUR. At Alterra he developed a scientific career in the field of mitigation of and adaptation to climate change. At present he is head of the Department Climate Change and Adaptive Land & Water Management of Alterra and actively involved in projects in Europe, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan, Nepal and California.
In Amsterdam he will be working on one of the main problems that already exists and which is expected to become more severe in the coming years, i.e. the partitioning of water between different uses during periods of water shortage. Recently it has been established that globally there is great uncertainty about the possible increase in drought. The largest source of uncertainty is related to the determination of evaporation. This indicates that research into drought, its underlying processes, consequences and possible mitigation options is needed. He will focus on improving our understanding of and knowledge on:

  • The changes in the water balance during relatively dry periods because of climate change and changes in demand, with a special focus on the evaporation component;
  • The feedback mechanisms (also at a regional scale) between groundwater, soil water, root-uptake and evaporation;
  • The frequency and duration of periods of low rainfall and soil moisture;
Ultimately this knowledge should lead to improved maps of water availability by combining evaporation, soil moisture, groundwater and surface water data. In addition the research will be beneficial to improving real time forecasts up to the seasonal scale of water availability strongly enhancing the capacity of water managers to adapt to upcoming extreme conditions. The thus gained knowledge will be used in cooperation with applied research institutes such as Alterra to further investigate the impacts on sectors such as water management, ecosystems, and health.

Climate hydrologist Diego Miralles receives NWO Veni grant


Diego MirallesDiego Miralles has been awarded a prestigious Veni grant from The Netherlands Organisation for Scientific Research (NWO). With this grant NWO gives talented researchers the opportunity to develop their ideas during three years. The grant amounts to a maximum of 250.000 Euros and will enable Miralles to expand the research on land effects on climate within the Department of Earth Sciences at VU University Amsterdam.

During the last ten years, droughts and heatwaves in Europe have raised death tolls by tens of thousands, and led to economic losses by several billion euros. While the impact of climate change on these events still remains unclear, it is believed that the presence of drier soils in the summer has (by itself) contributed to increase extreme temperatures and rainfall scarcity. As large continental regions are expected to become overall drier, there is a concern that droughts and heatwaves may be further aggravated.

Using a unique combination of satellite data, balloon sounding measurements and meteorological modelling, Miralles aims to disentangle the role of soil moisture in the intensification of climate extremes. Miralles: “This novel approach based on the physical interpretation of satellite and in-situ measurements can help uncover where these climatic extremes will aggravate in coming decades and whether IPCC climate models can reproduce this aggravation.”

Diego Miralles' career
Diego Miralles graduated with a BSc in Environmental Sciences (U.A. Madrid, Spain) and an MSc in Hydrology and Ecohydrology (V.U. Amsterdam). In 2008 he joined the Hydrology and Remote Sensing Lab (USA Department of Agriculture) to work on the retrieval of soil moisture from satellites. He returned to the V.U. in 2009 to steer his research towards the study of the magnitude and variability of continental evaporation. Two years later, this work led to the development of the satellite-based evaporation model GLEAM, that served as benchmark for his PhD thesis. During the last three years, Miralles has been assistant professor in Hydrology and Climate at the University of Bristol (UK) and is co-affiliated to the Laboratory of Hydrology and Water Management at Ghent University (Belgium). Currently, he coordinates a number of projects from the European Space Agency (ESA) and the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO).

Niels Andela and Guido van der Werf publish article in Nature on CO2 uptake by savannahs


Around a quarter of the carbon dioxide (CO2) we emit is taken up by vegetation on land; this is a kind of natural ‘service’ which mitigates climate change. In 2011, however, the uptake was much greater, equalling almost half of our emissions. An international team of scientists including Guido van der Werf and Niels Andela (Department of Earth Sciences, Earth and Climate cluster) has investigated why this happened. They report in the authoritative journal Nature that the savannahs in the southern hemisphere were largely responsible for the increased uptake of CO2 in 2011.

Niels Andela used a new data set to show how the quantity of biomass changed in the savannahs. Guido van der Werf assisted by determining how much CO2 is released into the atmosphere by fires in savannahs which exacerbate the greenhouse effect. Other scientists investigated different pieces of the puzzle. The most significant cause of the increased CO2 uptake was determined with the aid of a number of models.

This joint study revealed that the savannahs in Australia were primarily responsible for the increased uptake. This was caused by a number of what are known as ‘La Niña years’ in which, generally speaking, there is more precipitation and, thus, more plant growth. Of course, CO2 is necessary for this additional growth. This conclusion is interesting from the scientific point of view because, until now, tropical forests have always been seen as the most important factors in this respect. Now it appears that savannahs may be equally important.

Is this good or bad news? According to Van der Werf, that remains to be seen: “The increased CO2 uptake by plants is enormously useful but will not go on forever; at a certain point the effect will reach a saturation point. At the moment, the savannahs are jointly taking up a lot of CO2 because of a number of strong La Niña years. These La Niña years have also been responsible for the movement of a great deal of cold ocean water up to the surface in the tropics, and this has compensated for global warming due to greenhouse gases. However, the reverse has been forecast for later this year and we may experience strong El Niño conditions. In that case, the world’s temperature will rise again, there will be less precipitation in the savannah areas, which will then take up less CO2, and the global CO2 concentration will increase substantially. In other words, we must not be over-optimistic on the basis of the results from one or two years.”

Read the full article here: ‘Contribution of semi-arid ecosystems to interannual variability of the global carbon cycle’ (

FALW Researchers Blog from Siberia


Ko van Huissteden, Ron Lootens and Luca Belelli Marchesini (cluster Earth and Climate) recently started a blog about their research in northern Siberia. The researchers are currently staying at the VU research station Kytalyk. They are researching greenhouse gas emissions in order to improve our knowledge of the long-term effects of climate change.

VU University Amsterdam has been measuring greenhouse gases in Siberia since 2003, working together with scientists from the Russian Academy for Sciences in Yakutsk and Wageningen University. There are only two research stations in the vast Siberian tundra which carry out these sorts of measurements. The Kytalyk research station has been carrying out its observations for the longest. Research carried out by VU University Amsterdam has shown that changes in precipitation and vegetation can reinforce the formation of methane.

The blog is published on the website of the EU permafrost research project PAGE21.

Blog Kytalyk 2013: Travelogue from Luca Belelli Marchesini

New Light on Heul Girl Murder Case


Prof. Gareth Davies and Dr. Laura Font (cluster Deep Earth and Planetary Science) are collaborating with the cold case team of the police in Utrecht and the Netherlands Forensic Institute to help in the identification of the Heul girl (Heulmeisje). In 1976, she was found murdered and partly decomposed in the parking lot ‘De Heul’ near Maarn. New multi-isotope studies at VU University Amsterdam show that she probably grew up in Germany in the Eifel region.

For more than 35 years, the police have been trying to identify the Heul girl. Last year this controversial case was reopened. Until 2006, it was thought that the unidentified victim was Monique Jacobs. However, in 2006, Jacobs contacted her family. She had been living abroad during all this time. The Utrecht cold case team, in collaboration with Font and Davies at the VU, have used a combination of isotope techniques to determine the environment the girl lived in during her childhood and in which geographical regions she was before death. Based on the results obtained by the VU team, the Utrecht cold case team in collaboration with NFI, are trying on the basis of modern DNA profiles to find the identity of Heul girl.

The major new approach of Font and Davies is to use a comprehensive multi-isotope technique that combines stable and radiogenic isotopes. Based on the premise that you are what you eat the stable isotopes (H-C-N-O-S) are records of the local water cycle and our nutritional intake history. In contrast, radiogenic isotopes (Sr-Pb-Nd) record the geology and environmental pollution. Provided human keratinous tissues can be shown to be a viable record of recent food and water intake, then this material will record information of geographical movement weeks to years before their demise. Teeth and bones in contrast will record the information about the geographical location of early years of life.

More information on application of isotopes to Forensic Science can be obtained from Laura Font and Gareth Davies

Reports in Dutch media:

Richard de Jeu wins 2012 Boussinesq Award


Richard de Jeu (cluster Earth and Climate) gained the Boussinesq award for his development of global soil moisture and evaporation products. After he pioneered the derivation of soil moisture from passive microwave satellites, he has recently developed a new merged 30-year product of global soil moisture dynamics that uses the best characteristics of several earlier products. This is a landmark development that is already finding its way and use into climate and hydrological studies. Importantly all this data is open access and publicly available. This is incredibly important in current climate and other sciences. Richard de Jeu has put his data open access, long before it became fashionable.

The Boussinesq award is made on a bi-annual basis and given to a person for recognition of his/her outstanding scientific contributions to hydrological sciences. The 2012 award is the first award of the Boussinesq Center. The Boussinesq Center for Hydrology is the Dutch scientific hydrology centre. The objective of the Boussinesq Center is to strengthen hydrological research in The Netherlands, and to create favorable conditions for efficient multi-disciplinary research environment.  

The award will be given to Richard de Jeu on a special ceremony early 2013.

Two NWO Veni grants for Deep Earth and Planetary Science cluster


Micha Ruhl and Jessica Flahaut have been awarded a Veni grant by NWO. Two researchers from the Deep Earth and Planetary Science cluster in Earth Science haven been awarded a Veni grant by the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (NWO).

Micha Ruhl, currently Post-Doc at the Nordic Centre for Earth Evolution (University of Copenhagen): 'Quantification of environmental response to large-scale greenhouse gas release: An integrated organic-inorganic geochemical approach to quantify rate and magnitude of carbon release driven environmental change during past global mass extinctions'.

This project is joint with Utrecht and will study the environmental response to large-scale magmatism that produced massive greenhouse-gas release causing global ecosystem collapse and marine biodiversity loss. The project will quantify regional sea surface temperature changes and global ocean redox changes and the geographical extent of marine anoxia at times of magmatism by using cutting edge biogeochemical and heavy stable isotope methodologies.

Jessica Flahaut, currently a post doc at Université Paris Sud (Orsay, France): 'Constraining the habitability of Mars through multi-component analysis of its sulfate-rich deposits.'

This project will combine new high-resolution remote sensing data on Martian sulfate distribution with in situ, and laboratory studies of two terrestrial Mars analogue sites to study habitability conditions on Mars at a time of fundamental planetary-scale climate change.

FALW researchers in cold case forensic team


Researchers Laura Font and Gareth Davies use state-of-the art isotope geochemistry techniques to help in the identification of unidentified bodies in Amsterdam.Laura Font and Gareth Davies (Forensic Science Research part of The Deep Earth and Planetary Science group) are collaborating with the cold case team from Amsterdam-Amstelland Police to help in the identification of unidentified bodies found over the last 30 years in Amsterdam. The cold case team has re-opened about 90 cases.

The Deep Earth and Planetary Science team are using state-of-the art isotope geochemistry techniques to answer fundamental questions relating to the person’s place of birth and length of residence in The Netherlands. These data are combined with new DNA and pathology studies in an attempt to make progress in these open cases. A progress report about the project was presented on "Nieuwsuur" on 6-6-2012 and can be watched again on:

Inge van Gelder and Lucas Kleipool scoop the Escher Award 2011


The Escher Award for the best thesis in the field of Earth Sciences goes once again to students from VU University Amsterdam. Inge van Gelder and Lucas Kleipool received the Escher Award 2011 for their Master’s thesis. The Escher Award is presented annually by the Royal Dutch Geological and Mining Society (KNGMG) for the best thesis in Earth Sciences. The purpose of the award, named after the Leiden Professor of General Geology Professor Berend Escher, is to promote innovative research and the thorough documentation thereof. The prize includes a cash prize and a year's membership to the KNGMG. Last year’s award also went to VU University Amsterdam students with Eric Fulmer and Thomas Kruijer being the proud recipients.