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Geology in the 21st Century and the UC Experience

While science departments around the nation are feeling the pinch, UC’s Department of Geology keeps students right where they belong: at the epicenter, you might say.

Date: 10/19/2009 12:00:00 AM
By: Wendy Beckman
Phone: (513) 556-1826

UC ingot   Some things never change — summer turns to fall and in fall all University of Cincinnati geologists’ thoughts turn to the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting & Exposition (GSA).

This year’s annual GSA meeting is taking place in Portland, Ore., where the theme is “From Volcanoes to Vineyards: Living with Dynamic Landscapes.” More than 4,000 abstracts were submitted this year for the conference, which takes place Oct. 18–21, 2009.

Among those represented at GSA this year are 27 UC authors and co-authors of 14 papers and posters, including faculty as well as graduate and undergraduate students.

“There’s been a shift at GSA,” says UC Geology Professor Warren Huff. “It used to be that only faculty presented, but now there is much greater emphasis on graduate and even undergraduate students presenting papers — and a lot of students make their very first presentation at GSA.”

And once again UC students are presenting award-winning research. Scott Reynhout, who is pursuing a master’s of science in geology, will be one of two UC students being presented awards at GSA this year. He will receive the Arthur D. Howard Award for master's research from GSA's Quaternary Geology & Geomorphology Division. Esteban Sagredo is receiving a J. Hoover Mackin Student Research Award Honorable Mention for doctoral research.

GSA by the Numbers

  • 4,000 abstracts submitted to GSA
  • 162 sessions
  • 27 University of Cincinnati geologists are authors and co-authors on papers
  • 24 UC students, 17 graduate students and seven undergrads are going on the departmental field trip, a side trip to explore sites in the Pacific Northwest, along with 8 faculty and 6 alumni

The goal of GSA is to “[foster] the human quest for understanding Earth, planets, and life; [catalyze] new scientific ways of thinking about natural systems; and [support] the application of geoscience knowledge and insight to human needs, aspirations, and Earth stewardship,” while promoting the geosciences through education, public awareness and public policy.

It is probably safe to say that at some point in every North American geologist’s career, he or she goes to this annual meeting to hear — and discuss — the latest in geoscientific inquiry. Research presented at these meetings is, literally, ground-breaking. For example, it was at a GSA meeting in 1908 that the concept that later became known as “continental drift” was presented. What was once considered a wild theory by most is now widely accepted as fact.

Some other things also change. And climate change is one of the many topics of presentations by UC researchers. Besides global warming (past, present and future), another global theme is evident: global learning.

UC faculty and students collaborated with colleagues in South Korea, China, Chile, Spain and Germany — not to mention some of the leading universities here in the United States, like UC–Berkeley, University of Southern California, California State University and Georgia Institute of Technology.

UC geoscientists also traveled the globe to conduct their research to such places as the Himalaya in Northern India, Death Valley in California, the Gulf of Mexico and North Atlantic, Turkey and South China, Chil, Spain, Morocco — plus Southeastern New York/northeastern New Jersey, Delaware and good old Cincinnati.  

Here’s a sample of what UC researchers have learned from all this work:

Craig Dietsch and Lewis Owen in the Himalaya.
Craig Dietsch and Lewis Owen in the Himalaya

Many of the students and faculty looked at changing climates and landscapes, such as faculty members Lewis Owen and Craig Dietsch as well as students Jason Dortch and Scott Reynhout.

Department Head Lewis Owen’s research focuses on the landscape evolution of mountain belts and the processes that operate in these environments. He is particularly concerned with quantifying the timing, and rates and magnitudes of environmental change in mountains, and has concentrated his efforts in two major belts: the Himalayan-Tibetan orogen and the western Cordillera of North and South America.

Professor Craig Dietsch uses thermochronology to answer questions regarding the tectonic and thermal evolution of mountain chains. By dating zircon grains in Spain, Dietsch is able to date mountains that no longer exist. Ages range from about 460 to 2,000 million years old.

Graduate student Kate Hedrick’s current project in the northwest Indian Himalaya focuses on determining the glacial history in order to better understand the dynamics of and the transition between the primary climate systems of the region—the southeast Asian monsoon and the mid-latitude Westerlies. This study contributes dates of glacial advance in the Zanskar to a sparse database and plays a part in better understanding the present and past dynamics of the Himalayan climate system.

Each year Professor Warren Huff leads a clay mineralogy seminar for his undergraduate students.

“Each spring we do some kind of a research project. The end product is always a GSA poster,” says Huff. “This year we had access to a number of sediment samples taken for borings in the sea floor as part of the Ocean Drilling Program. Each student was responsible for certain activities in the lab, and at the end we put everything together to make this poster. Tanya DelValle has taken the lead on putting the poster together. She is the lead author and will make the presentation in Portland.”

Carlton Brett.
Carl Brett

Paleontologist Carl Brett is involved with three very different papers that will be presented at GSA. In each one, Brett shows why UC’s paleontology department is so well respected, having been ranked 7th in the nation by “U.S. News & World Report” since 2006.

“Taphonomic Analysis of Devonian Rhythmic Trilobite Beds: Event Sedimentation and Cyclic Cementation” was written with PhD student Jay Zambito and adjunct faculty member Brenda Hunda. Hunda is also a staff member of Cincinnati’s prestigious Cincinnati Museum Center.

“Spectacular trilobite fossils from the Early Devonian of Morocco (~400 million years old) are sold in rock shops around the world. But until we mounted a National Geographic-sponsored expedition to study the unexploited trilobite bearing beds of SW Morocco, few had ever studied the trilobites and their mode of preservation in the field,” says Brett.

“In ‘Silt: The Overlooked But Enlightening Wildcard of a Cyclic Sedimentary Succession,’ graduate student Nathan Marshall and I document the occurrence of siltstone layers in the famed Upper Ordovician Cincinnatian (~450 million year old) of the Tri-states area as a means of better understanding the history of deposition of these famous strata.”

Brett says that although the limestone and shale rocks of these strata have been extensively studied, few workers have looked at the siltstones in any detail. It turns out that siltstones are not distributed randomly in the succession, but show strong concentrations at certain levels. In general silt content seems to increase upward relative to clay in small-scale cyclic packages. This may be a signature of falling sea levels, which allowed coarser sediments to be carried farther offshore. Silt, supplied from mountainous source areas perhaps 300 km to the southwest of the inland seas that occupied the Cincinnati area, arrived as surprisingly widespread sheets, a few centimeters thick but traceable over areas of thousands of square kilometers. Thus, these beds record extraordinarily large storms or possibly tsunamis that carried immense volumes of coarse sediments far offshore.

Tsunamis? In Cincinnati?

In yet a third paper, “Late Eifelian (Middle Devonian) Biotic Turnover Patterns in Eastern North America,” Brett and another student turn an eye to extinctions and biodiversity. Brett says that mass extinctions have attracted much attention in recent years, but most of the focus has been on the “Big Five”: the largest die-offs in the past half billion years. However, there are a much larger number of lesser extinctions and biological turnover events that can shed light on patterns of climatic, sea-level and other environmental changes associated with biological upheavals.

“PhD student Michael DeSantis and I have teased apart these different events in eastern North America and discovered that they have counterparts in other parts of the world,” says Brett. “These disturbances are associated with evidence for rapid fluctuations in global warming/cooling, high sea level and times of widespread low oxygen conditions within shallow seas."

Professor Arnie Miller and grad student Anne Lagomarcino are examining paleodiversity and mass extinctions.

“Given present-day concerns about the fate of global biodiversity, it is important to understand the agents that determine how many species are present in any given region of the world,” says Lagomarcino. “Against this backdrop, biologists have long understood that there is a close relationship in modern terrestrial environments between the number of species in a given region and the size of the region.”

In recent years, this predictable relationship has been used extensively by conservation biologists to forecast the amount of diversity loss incurred by a given reduction of habitat area. While these so called species-area relationships are used widely in present-day ecosystems to examine the spatial distribution of modern terrestrial organisms, there is currently little knowledge of species-area relationships in oceanic settings, despite growing worries about the loss of marine species. While large-scale diversity studies of the modern oceans are both challenging and expensive because of the difficulty of peering in detail beneath the ocean’s surface, marine organisms are commonly preserved extensively and accessibly in the fossil record at a range of geographic scales.

For this reason, Anne Lagomarcino and Arnie Miller are using The Paleobiology Database, which catalogues the occurrences of fossil organisms throughout geological time in a geographic context, combined with regional field work in the Santa Ana Mountains, to study ancient marine species-area relationships during the Cretaceous Period of the Mesozoic Era. So far, they’ve been able to demonstrate that the nature of the species-area relationship, in particular the rate at which the number of species increases as a function of area, increases systematically through the Late Cretaceous. Now, they are turning their attention to regional differences in these relationships, to determine whether different environments were characterized by predictable differences in the species-area relationship.

Students/visiting researchers in Professor Attila Kilinc’s group and Kilinc will be presenting two posters. One presentation is with Gokce Ustunisik, who just completed her PhD with Kilinc and now is a post-doc at SUNY-Stony Brook, and another with a visiting pre-doctoral student, Demet Kiran-Yildirim, from the Istanbul Technical University in Turkey.
“The poster with Ustunisik is about calculating how long the magma stays underground before eruption,” says Kilinc. “This is important because the longevity of magmas determines how big the crystals will grow, whether magma will erupt explosively or quietly and how far the lava will travel once the magma reaches to the surface. In this research, Crystal Size Distribution theory was used. Information we are presenting is new because in the application of this theory we are using two minerals simultaneously to calculate the magma residence time, which has not been done before.”

The poster with Kiran-Yildirim is about using geochemical computational techniques to calculate the stability fields of two important ore minerals: galena (ore mineral for lead) and sphalerite (ore mineral for zinc) in a lead-zinc mine in Turkey.

“To my knowledge this is the first time that such computational techniques have been used in Turkey,” says Kilinc.

After GSA, Annual Fall Field Trip
In addition to the GSA meeting, UC’s Department of Geology holds an annual fall field trip that is enjoyed by students, faculty and alumni alike. It is regarded as a time for bonding, learning and discovery.

As GSA’s technical program chair, Dick Berg (of the Illinois State Geological Survey), pointed out in his remarks, “geoscientists are a unique brand of physical scientist trained with an interpretive eye to ‘visualize’…. It is somewhere between uncertainty, prediction and observed phenomena that pure geoscience discovery and research flourishes.”

UC Geology Department head Lewis Owen touches on this when he discusses the importance of the departmental field trips. For geologists in many ways, their lab is the outdoors.

“You need to see the different environments personally, really,” Owen says. He acknowledges that geologists do their share of inside lab work at computers and in libraries, but, he says, “Geology is a field science. And the field trips with our students are very important toward building a sense of community — we feel that it is pretty important."

But with budgets getting tighter — both universities’ and personal — travel is getting more and more difficult to accomplish. The news is full of universities forced to cut corners from menu items in the faculty and students' cafeteria choices to field courses at the registrar's window.

The GSA meetings are held all around the United States, so that travel is inevitable for different universities and colleges in any given year. This year, UC’s contingent is making the trek from Ohio to Oregon, increasing some travel costs. Then, to consider doing a fall field trip in addition to the fall conference, the faculty knew they were asking a lot of the students and the departmental funds.

However, UC’s Geology Department is different from many others. Through the generosity of current and former faculty, alumni and corporate sponsors, the department has endowments that fund such things as this year’s fall field trip. For example, the Walter H. Bucher Fund provides funds to faculty and students for traveling to meetings and for research opportunities.

“We could use the Bucher Fund for other things,” says Owen. “But I think it’s worth it to put toward travel to conferences and to do research.”

So when faced with rising costs and shrinking budgets, what’s a frugal faculty to do with their endowed funds?

Simple: combine trips.

Barry Maynard
Barry Maynard

There is an economy of scale to this trip,” says Professor Barry Maynard, organizer of the field trip. “Most of the faculty and graduate students were going out to the GSA meeting anyway, so airfare was covered. Our lodging and meal expenses are the same whether we are in Oregon or Kentucky. We were able to book blocks of tickets that were very reasonable.”

After GSA closes up shop, most of the University of Cincinnati group will pile into vans and head north to study volcanoes, namely Mount Hood, Mount St. Helens and Mount Rainier of Oregon and Washington. These three mountains represent fantastic examples of volcanism, volcanic debris flows (lahars) and pyroclastics — not exactly the kind of geology that one sees in the field around Ohio, Kentucky or Indiana.

“There is an extra burden on our resources (from endowment, not the taxpayers of Ohio) for the undergraduates who are attending, but we believe this is important for their education. Also, we have six alumni attending at their own expense,” says Maynard, “Therefore the cost of the trip is somewhat higher than normal, but the opportunity to see these kinds of rocks and these kinds of geologic hazards is unique. There is nothing like this anywhere else in the United States, and to mount a stand-alone trip to go out there would cost several times what we are spending.”

Lewis Owen says that all the faculty share the commitment to the field experience.

Field trip group from 2009.
Field trip group from 2009.

You'll see us in our labs and at our computers at some point," he says. "But if we can’t get our students out in the field, we’re not doing our jobs properly.”

More About Geology at the University of Cincinnati

VIDEO: Geology Students Win Top Awards at Annual Conference
Students come from around the world to travel the globe and study the earth at the University of Cincinnati Department of Geology.

NSF Grant Puts Geology Chair in Himalayas
Geology Department Head Lewis Owen studies the geomorphology of mountain belts in Tibet.

Understanding Surficial Processes in the Himalayan Orogen
Graduate student Jason Dortch takes on Earth's various terrains in the name of research.

Paleontologists Honor UC’s Arnie Miller for Significant Work
The Paleontological Society has awarded UC scientist Arnie Miller with the prestigious Centennial Fellow title in recognition of his contributions to the field of paleontology.

More About the North American Paleontological Convention 2009 (NAPC)
The 9th North American Paleontological Convention (NAPC) was held on the campus of the University of Cincinnati, June 21-26, 2009. The centrally located Cincinnati region is world renowned for its Upper Ordovician fossils and strata, and has a long-established heritage of paleontological research and teaching.

A Sense of Place
For UC geology students in the McMicken College of Arts & Sciences, their place is clearly at the center.