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UC Geologists Explore Biodiversity, Water Quality and Climate Change

Some things never change: biodiversity and climate change have been important for thousands of years. These are among the topics presented by University of Cincinnati researchers at the GSA annual meeting Oct. 27–31 in Denver.

Date: 10/26/2007 12:00:00 AM
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826

UC ingot  

Craig Dietsch and Lewis Owen in India.
Craig Dietsch and Lewis Owen discuss their work in India.

From Austria to Australia, from New York to California, from the heights of the Himalaya to the depths of the world’s oceans, University of Cincinnati researchers are studying, collaborating and presenting at the annual meeting of the Geologica Society of America (GSA). As is traditionally the case, UC again has one of the largest contingents of faculty and students making presentations. But this year, one of the UC researchers won’t be coming directly from Cincinnati to the conference. Where will he be? Hint: it involves a trip to Mars.

Here’s a core sample of UC’s geology work.

Melting Glaciers
Doctoral student Colby Smith is the lead author for “Late Pleistocene Glacial Activity on Nevado Sajama, Western Cordillaera, Bolivia.” With his co-author, Prof. Thomas Lowell, Smith has studied whether specific glaciers have been more sensitive to changes in temperature or changes in precipitation. These differences can affect how glaciers and their movement are reflected in the geologic record.

New doctorate Kelly LaBlanc studied glaciated valleys in the Sawatch Range of Colorado and the Appalachian Ice Complex of the South Mountain Batholith region of Nova Scotia for the paper “Using Glacial Dispersal Patterns to Understand the Spatial Distribution of Subglacial Quarrying.”

Student Alexander Stewart and faculty members Thomas Lowell and Lewis Owen researched the effects of topography on glacial erosion. As they report in their paper, “Palaeotopograhy and Glacier Erosion: Terminal Region, Ohio, USA,” it is important to know the topography of a region in order to understand the glacial processes and thus the effects of climate change. Uplands (hills, mountains) are bypassed by the majority of ice flow so they show little to no erosion. Lowlands, whicfh receive thicker, warm-based ice, are subjected to more erosion. The patterns they report are the first to illustrate the minor, long-term erosive nature of the Laurentide Ice Sheet, which covered most of Canada and parts of the United States, including New York City, northern Ohio and Chicago, Ill.

Unlike most of their peers, faculty members David Nash and Kees DeJong, along with undergraduate student Gisela Cicci and master’s student Rebecca Reverman, stayed close to home for their research of the Ohio/Kentucky/Indiana region. But their research might have hit the highest altitude, using aerial photographs and satellite images to examine a “corduroy” system of narrow ridges and valleys. In their paper “Corduroy Terrain near Cincinnati: Mega-Scale Glacial Grooves?” the team concludes that the ridge systems are a result of glaciation.

Rare Fossils

Kate Bulinski on the Kope Formation near Cincinnati.
Kate Bulinski on the Kope Formation near Cincinnati.

Doctoral student Kate Bulinski — along with fellow graduate students Devin Buick and Chad Ferguson, alumnus Austin Hendy and Prof. Arnie Miller — studied the representation of rare animals in the fossil record. In their paper, “Cenozoic Relationships Between Geographic Range and Assemblage-Level Abundance: The Role of Rare Taxa,” the team presents results focusing on molluscs living in various marine habitats. Animals that were less abundant in life and thus rarer in the fossil record are often considered to be “habitat specialists” that were more sensitive to changes in their environment. Therefore, these rare taxa can be indicators of changes in climate or oceanographic conditions.

Ecology and Biodiversity

Carl Brett.
Carl Brett (Photo by Dottie Stover)

Master’s student Trisha Smrecak and Prof. Carl Brett looked at the biodiversity and ecology of encrusting epibionts on modern and ancient shellfish. (Epibionts are animals that live on the surface of other animals, the way barnacles do.) In their paper, “Shell Encrusting Epibiont Biofacies Along Depth/Photic Zone Transects: Comparison of Recent and Late Ordovician Gradients,” Smrecak and Brett compared modern bryozoans to those living about 450 million years ago, found in the local Cincinnatian rocks. Comparisons were made according to the water depth (based on traces of fossil algae that indicate the amount of available light).

Recent PhD recipient Austin Hendy, now doing  post-doctoral research at Yale University, asks a deep question in his paper, “Where Does All the Diversity Go Again? A Cenozoic Perspective on Variations in Alpha, Beta and Gamma Diversity in Shallow Marine Environments.” Hendy notes that the species that are native to an area, as well as similarities between areas themselves, relate to the opening and closing of major oceanic gateways. He also notes, though, that climate change is another strong influence.

Student Devin Buick and fellow researcher Linda Ivany from Syracuse University might have discovered the fountain of youth, but it involves a trip to the South Pole. In “Becoming Younger While Getting Colder: Exploring the Evolutionary Role of Heterochrony in Long-Lived Bivalves from the Eocene of Seymour Island, Antarctica,” they discuss the size of bivalve fossils (animals — like clams — that have two sides to their shells) as a function of the individual animal’s age, growth rate and the size changes of a species over time.

Department head Arnie Miller worked with students Buick, Bulinski, Ferguson and the new Dr. Hendy to study extinction patterns and biodiversity. With the breakup of the supercontinent “Pangea,” coastal areas of the newly formed paleocontinents became isolated from each other. It is widely held that biota — living organisms — became regionalized in response to their specific environmental conditions, thus increasing world-wide biodiversity. As presented in their paper, “Global Geographic Disparity of Marine Biotas Through the Phanerozoic,” Miller et al use a new analytical protocol to look at the differences in marine species over time and geographic differences, assigning occurrences of various biota to “cells” that are five by five degrees, longitudinally and longitudinally.

Western Lavas
Doctoral student Brian Nicklen worked with researchers from Nebraska to study the thickness of the Elk Creek Carbonatite (ECC) in Nebraska. They describe their work in the poster presentation, “Late Paleozoic Weathering and Residual Accumulation of Minerals on Elk Creek Carbonatite, Southeastern Nebraska, USA.” (The Paleozoic Era ended about 250 million years ago.) By looking at the weathering of the igneous rock carbonatite, the team concluded that the lava flowed over land and was sloughed off before being submerged in water so that additional rock beds would be deposited on top of what became the ECC.

Nicklen also worked with researcher Gordon Bell from Guadalupe Mountains National Park and UC geologist Warren Huff to study ancient ash beds in Texas. Their poster, “Ancient Ash Beds in the Type Area of the Middle Permian, Guadalupe Mountains National Park, West Texas, USA” presents a description of the K-bentonites (a type of clay mineral) found in the volcanic ash.

Crinoid City
In “Comparing Local and Regional Morphologic Diversity in Ordovician Through Early Silurian Laurentian Crinoids,” doctoral student Bradley Deline and Prof. Carl Brett studied the diversity of differences in structure of Paleozoic crinoids. Crinoids, commonly called sea lilies because of their flower-like appearance, are frequently found in the fossils of the Cincinnati area. Their stems are often seen in cross-section in limestone, appearing like a drawer full of beads, frozen in the fossil record. Deline and Brett’s study of the Cincinnatian type (specifically Upper Ordovician) indicates a strong relation between water depth and diversity of crinoid structure.

The Shifting Sands (and Silts) of Time
UC geologists and engineers teamed up for “Mineral and Chemical Characteristics of Some Quaternary Clays and Their Relation to Standard Engineering Properties.” When a water treatment plant was being built in Alexandria, Ky., clay-bearing shales and other sediments were encountered. Researchers from the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering measured such things as moisture content, liquid and plastic limits, and compressive strength. The UC researchers concluded that the clays had very low strength characteristics. Therefore the soils were determined to be poor for foundation fills and pavement sub-bases.

Post-doctoral fellow Marcus Fuchs, visiting from Germany, looks at the relationship between age of sedimentary rocks and the light to which the sediments were exposed before being buried. Luminescence dating is a technique used to determine the age of sediments, based on their exposure to light and heat. Fuchs concludes that sediments that were not fully exposed to sunlight tend to have their age overestimated, as he presents in his paper “Luminescence Dating in Quaternary Geology: Advances and Applications.”

Paul Potter.
Professor Emeritus Paul E. Potter (Photo by Andrew Higley)

Prof. Emeritus Paul E. Potter, recent recipient of the John T. Galey Memorial Award from the Eastern Section of the American Association of Petroleum Geologists, collaborated with researchers in Australia and Brazil for their paper, “Evolution of the Sunsas Orogen, a Grenvillian Equivalent in South America, Based on Detrital Zircon U-Pb Geochronology.” In looking at the zircons in specific sandstones and meta-sandstones, the researchers could tell where the rocks were formed and make inferences regarding the movement of continental plates.

Grad student Ana Londono has conducted extensive research on the Wari terraces of southern Peru. In her paper, “1,000-year Pattern of Erosion in Arid Environments from Wari Pre-Columbian Terraces in Southern Peru,” Londono describes constructed earthworks as a useful tool for understanding the pattern and rate of surface degradation under dryland conditions.

Climate Change
Prof. Thomas Lowell studied the growth and decay of glacier systems as an indicator of past and present climate changes. His paper, “Correlation of Glacial Sequences to Unravel Patterns of Global Climate Change: What Resolution is Needed?” is being presented as part of the overall session called “The Cause of Global Warming — Are We Facing Global Catastrophe in the Coming Century?” Lowell concludes that historical events must have lasted for more than 600 calendar years before a clear relationship can be ascertained based on the geologic record.

Prof. Carl Brett tested his language skills in studying patterns of sea-level and climate change recorded in limestones and shales for his paper, “Comparative Sequence Stratigraphy and Eustasy in the Silurian of the Carnic Alps, Austria, and Eastern North America.” Brett teamed up with colleagues from the Geological Survey of Austria and the Dipartimento di Scienze della Terra, Universita degli Studi di Modena e Reggion Emilia (in Modena, Italy). This study showed that there were very similar patterns of  sea-level change in the Austrian sections and in North America, suggesting that these are recording global processes related to ancient climate change.

Now You Don’t See Them, Now You Do
Graduate student Jay Zambito teamed up with alumnus Alex Bartholomew (now teaching at SUNY–New Paltz in eastern Upstate New York) and Prof. Carl Brett to take a closer look at fossils that seem to appear from nowhere. Their paper, “Re-examination of the Type Ithaca Formation Frasnian Using a Sequence Stratigraphic Approach: Implications for Control of an Anachronistic Fauna,” refers to these time-travelers as “Lazarus fauna” that appear long after they had apparently gone extinct in other parts of the world. They note that fauna can survive when conditions are suitable, provided that they have not become biogeographically isolated. Thus, sea-level fluctuation is a key factor influencing migration of fauna.

Keeping a Nose to the Grindstone
Geology researcher Tammie Gerke and professors Barry Maynard and Craig Dietsch partnered with peers from the Classics Department to study millstones from the Greek and Roman periods. Millstones, large slabs of stone used to grind grain, were examined using textural, mineralogical and chemical techniques. The composition of the stones was compared to volcanic sources in the central and eastern Mediterranean. Based on the samples, eight potential sources for the original rock were identified as described in their paper, “Sourcing Volcanic Millstones from Greco-Roman sites in Albania.”

Gerke was busy this year. She also worked with Maynard and student Paul Arndts, as well as a colleague from Indiana University, to examine ceramics found in the river valleys of Ohio and Missouri. Based on amounts of silicon, sodium, cobalt, titanium, aluminum, calcium, potassium and phosphorous, conclusions can be drawn about whether the ceramics came from the Heaton Farm or Angel, Ind., site. Their results are described in the poster “Chemical Characterization of Ceramics from the Angel and Heaton Farms Sites of Southwestern IN: Possible Sources of Elevated Phosphorous.”

Honoring History
This year has another Cincinnati connection, but a more somber one. Covington native Richard Alexander (“Alex”) received his bachelor’s degree in geology from the University of Cincinnati in 1968. He went on to earn his master’s and doctorate from Indiana University and become a leading expert in paleoecology. His specialty was studying how the shells of brachiopods (think of the Shell gasoline sign) changed in response to changes in environment. Alexander tragically died as a result of a swimming accident in December 2006 at the age of 60. The session called “Whole-Organism Paleoecology and the Relationship of Form, Function, and Ecological Interactions” was created in memory of Richard Alexander. The paper by Smrecak and Brett will be presented in this symposium.

UC and GSA by the Numbers
119 = the age of the Geological Society of America
67 = the percentage of Dept. of Geology faculty members who are authors or co-authors of this year’s presentations
39 = the number of people with ties to the University of Cincinnati who are listed as authors or co-authors
21 = the number of presentations with UC authors or co-authors
7 = U.S. News & World Report’s ranking of UC’s graduate paleontology program
6 = the number of continents providing locations or collaborators for our UC researchers (guys — what about Africa?) [Editor's note: We stand corrected. Lewis Owen has two projects in Africa: one in Morocco on landscape evolution of the Atlas and Anti-Atlas Mountains, the other in Egypt on the Holocene of the Fayum Basin. And Ahmed Sharaf has joined the Department of Geology for a six-month postdoctoral visit from Ain Shams University in Cairo, Egypt. He will be working with Warren Huff on clays and possible bentonites from multiple locations in Africa. UC geologists truly span the globe.]
3, 4…maybe 5 = which World Series games might be played in Denver during the GSA conference
3 = the number of UC departments represented (geology, classics and civil & environmental engineering)
2 = the number of geology alumni who are still coming “home” to collaborate with UC researchers
1 fine experience

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