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Pursuing geology from SoCal to sub-zero and back to sun and sand

Doctoral student employs cutting-edge geological dating techniques in research of tectonic plates on a Caribbean island.

Date: 6/20/2012
By: Tom Robinette
Phone: (513) 556-8577
Speeding through perilous rapids on a rubber raft might not seem like the best time to notice the rock strata in the nearby mountains, but that never stopped Jenny Arkle from scanning the horizon with paddle in hand.
Jenny Arkle recently conducted geology research while visiting Trinidad & Tobago.

The longtime professional whitewater rafting guide from Fullerton, Calif., grew up fascinated by the outdoors and had a natural curiosity about her surroundings, including the geological formations of the river canyons and mountain ranges of her hometown landscape.

Arkle’s love of nature helped guide her academic path. She has bachelor’s degrees in geography and geology and a master’s degree in geology from California State University, Fullerton and began the University of Cincinnati’s doctoral program in geology this March. She came to UC for a reason – the high quality and quantity of work produced by the Department of Geology faculty, in particular, Department Head Lewis Owen.

“I chose UC for the opportunity to work with Dr. Lewis Owen and the other research staff here,” Arkle says. “Lewis is one of the top tectonic geomorphologists in the discipline, and he is known for supporting students who work with him.”

Owen is also considered to be one of the foremost geologists in applying two relatively new geological dating techniques – Optically Stimulated Luminescence (OSL) and Cosmogenic Radionucleide (CRN) – and Arkle is eager to learn from him.

“He’s a major player in producing and applying these techniques to the types of geologic problems that I’m interested in addressing,” Arkle says.
Arkle at Havasu Creek in the Grand Canyon.

The problems she mentions deal with tectonic geomorphology – the study of how landscapes are shaped throughout time – and her field area is in the tiny Caribbean nation of Trinidad and Tobago. The larger of the two islands, Trinidad, is home to a major tectonic plate boundary known to generate earthquakes. It’s also just north of the equator, thereby subjecting it to the mercies of a sweltering tropical climate, periods of intense rainfall and perpetual erosion.

Arkle recently joined a group of UC faculty and students on a trip to Trinidad this spring for field work. While there, she was able to gather information on another aspect of her research: the potential impact humans have on landscapes.

“Trinidad has a well-documented colonization record,” Arkle says. “What we hope to address are landscape changes over human time scales. So we could potentially see some of the impacts that humans have had on the landscape.”

Arkle works with other Geology Department team members on its innovative Quaternary and Anthropocene Research Group (QARG). The premier, public, urban research group serves people worldwide and is dedicated to undergraduate, graduate and professional education; experience-based learning; research in Quaternary Period science; and the study of the Anthropocene Epoch.

The Anthropocene is an informally but widely accepted geological time frame that covers the existence of environmental effects caused by increased human population and economic development. Part of QARG’s mission is to assess humans’ impact on Earth and to help predict future changes to the planet through environmental risk assessment and hazard mitigation. That’s where Arkle’s research on Trinidad fits in.

“There are major faults that are mapped through some of the larger cities In Trinidad, such as Port of Spain, but the activity along these faults is not very well constrained,” Arkle says. “The data we get can be passed on to modelers, engineers and other scientists and incorporated into hazard mitigation models.”
Arkle navigates the Harriman Fjord in Alaska.

When she’s finished with her studies, Arkle hopes to teach and continue her research as a faculty member at the university level. In the meantime, this Southern California girl who has previously conducted research in the sub-zero temperatures of Alaska and Antarctica is enjoying the chance to work in Trinidad’s warmer climate.

“It’s nice to be somewhere tropical,” Arkle says. “And working in a different climate and different tectonic system gives me more breadth in my research.”

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