Earth's Biggest Unanswered Questions

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So, what are today’s biggest unanswered questions in Earth science?

Kathyrn Hansen, associate editor of EARTH magazine, recently posed the question to a variety of experts ranging from paleontologists and geologists to atmospheric and planetary scientists. From Hansen’s compilation, here are Three Big Unanswered Questions that caught my eye:

BIG UNANSWERED QUESTION #1:

Where are all the big magma chambers that could produce super-eruptions?

Geologists can tell us where supervolcanoes have exploded in the past, but so far none of those old scars seem to have much liquid magma brewing beneath them. Why haven’t we found any big magma chambers yet?

John Eichelberger, a volcanologist with the U.S. Geological Survey, offers several possibilities. Maybe the old supervolcanoes already spent themselves and the magma chambers are empty. Maybe we haven’t looked in the right place or our techniques aren’t yet good enough. Or, as geophysicists reported recently, maybe supervolcanoes develop very fast and erupt quickly:

ANALYSIS: Super Volcanoes Form Super Fast

True supervolcano eruptions, ones that spew lava and ash on the order of 1,000 cubic kilometers or more, are incredibly rare; on average, only about one super-eruption occurs every 100,000 years. So we humans really aren’t at much risk. But just imagine…what if? Simply put, the consequences would be apocalyptic.

As Eichelberger notes: “Danger, however unlikely, is fascinating.”

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BIG UNANSWERED QUESTION #2:

How stable is the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and what does it mean for global sea level?

Supervolcanoes may not be much risk for those of us living on Earth today, but the devastating consequences of rising sea level are already very real:

ANALYSIS: Bangkok Sinking, Paradise Going Under

With so much of the world’s population living near the coasts, scientists would really like to be able to make predictions precise enough for people to plan how to handle the loss of land and threats to coastal communities that are expected by the end of this century.

But so far, they can’t. Bummer.

NEWS: How Much Will Earth’s Seas Rise? Answers Lacking

BIG UNANSWERED QUESTION #3:

So we know a lot about dinosaur fossils, but what about dinosaur biology?

In the case of dinosaurs, it’s a good thing scientists don’t have all the answers.

“Answers to all of the questions about dinosaurs might well take away the very mystery that surrounds them, and it’s the mystery that charges children’s imaginations,” notes Jack Horner, a paleontologist at Montana State University.

For all that paleontologists know about the size and shape of dinosaurs, they still know surprisingly little about their biology. In Horner’s opinion, figuring out how gigantic sauropods could be so wildly successful is the key to understanding dinosaurs as living animals.

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Hansen highlighted some big questions from other Earth scientists as well:

  • How will climate change affect forests and dry-land vegetation and, in turn, atmospheric composition?
  • Is there life on any other planetary body in our solar system?

If we were to make a Top Ten list, what questions would you include?

Photo Credit: NASA Earth Observatory