Using cosmic rays to understand the Earth's surface

July 18, 2005

Brussels, 15 Jul 2005

A new EU-funded research project, CRONUS-EU, aims to improve our understanding of the chronology of the Earth's surface events. Using cosmic rays, scientists will be able to date changes in landscapes with greater accuracy.

The new cosmic-ray methods will shed light on the Earth's past climate cycles, changes in soil erosion, frequency of floods and landslides, and how weathering of rocks affects global warming and cooling.

The CRONUS-EU network consists of a consortium of nine partners from the Netherlands, UK, Germany, France, the Slovak Republic and Switzerland. These European research teams will cooperate on a voluntary basis with a parallel US initiative, involving 13 universities, funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF). The European Union is providing CRONUS-EU with 3.4 million euro over four years under the Human Potential priority of the Fifth Framework Programme (FP5), while CRONUS-US has been awarded the equivalent of 4.8 million euro over five years.

Supernovae, exploding in distant reaches of the galaxy, unleash torrents of highly energetic atomic particles. Billions of these cosmic rays impact Earth every year. With CRONUS (Cosmic-Ray prOduced NUclide Systematics), geologists are able to measure the accumulated results of these atomic transmutations in rocks on the Earth's surface, otherwise known as terrestrial cosmogenic nuclides (TCN).

The main objective of the work programme of CRONUS-EU is to advance TCN techniques in Europe, ultimately creating a reliable tool by developing TCNs into an accurate chronometer for use in a wide range of Earth and environmental sciences.

To reach this goal, researchers will sample rocks from key sites around the world, expose elements to nuclear beams in high-energy accelerators, and count cosmic-ray impacts with detectors flown to high altitudes in aircraft. The results will be pooled in a wide-ranging effort to understand the fundamentals of these cosmic-ray reactions so that they can routinely be used as methods for reconstructing and analysing changes in our environment. CRONUS scientists in the European Union and the US will use these measurements as a 'clock' to time the history of Earth's surface.

The ultimate goal is the development of an internationally accepted protocol that allows accurate age determinations that are consistent with the mature geochronometers that are currently available. In the future, users of the technique must be able to obtain the same ages or process rates when analysing the same samples, irrespective of their scientific and cultural background. While this goal is achievable in principle, there is much work still to be done to make it a reality.

CRONUS-EU will train a community of high quality scientists needed to develop and apply these techniques for the future benefit of various European science disciplines. Training of early stage and experienced researchers in this novel technique is an integral part of the European CRONUS-EU effort.

For further information, please consult the following web addresses:

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities
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