GSA should stand for 'going strong again' for the UC Department of Geology -- as always

October 11, 2005

For years, UC has been known to send large numbers of its faculty and students to the GSA, the biggest geological conference in the country.

"We are especially pleased that so many of our students will be making presentations at this year's GSA meeting," says Arnie Miller, head of the Department of Geology. "Needless to say, the presentations provide our students with chances to gain the experience of showcasing their expertise to broad audiences, but the meeting also gives them opportunities to meet and chat with people they've never met previously, but whose names they've become familiar with through the literature. The students quickly come to appreciate that the most important aspects of these meetings are not the formal presentations, but the informal discussions that take place in the hallways outside meeting rooms and over meals."

The Geological Society of America was established in 1888 to promote sharing of knowledge in the earth sciences among researchers at all levels and in all areas: academic, business and government. The annual meeting provides an unbeatable setting for the exchange of ideas and a fantastic opportunity for students to test their presenting skills.

"As the newest member of the faculty, it is really encouraging to see so many of my colleagues and our students actively involved in this important meeting. This is particularly impressive given the modest size of our department," says UC geology's colloquium coordinator Lewis Owen. "Clearly it shows quality and quantity of the research that is being undertaken by our department. I am looking forward to hearing these talks and the debates that I am sure they will stimulate among both the academic and applied communities."

"The entire experience of meeting preparation, arranging logistics, and running around for four days at the speed of light from venue to venue, leaves everyone exhausted but smiling at the end," says Miller.

Samples of This Year's Presentations

Biodiversity (is a good thing)

Geology chair Arnie Miller has long researched the history of global biodiversity (that is, changes through geological time in the number of different kinds of organisms that lived on the planet, with particular emphasis on marine biotas, since that's the best-preserved part of the fossil record).

"In addition to looking at aggregate global diversity, we can also investigate changes at other 'hierarchical' levels," says Miller. "For example, some folks have been interested in diversity at the level of individual animal communities ("alpha" diversity), and have analyzed changes through time in the average alpha diversity of communities."

While one might think that changes at these two different levels should parallel one another (for example, more species or genera within individual communities should lead to more species in the world as a whole), there are reasons to believe that this might not always (or even typically) be the case. If, for example, species or genera become more widespread (cosmopolitan) in their environmental and geographic distributions at the same time that alpha diversity increases, then the amount of difference in composition among communities in different parts of the world might actually decrease, and this would tend to mute the aggregate global diversity increase.

"This is where beta diversity comes in," Miller continues. Students Devin Buick, Katherine Bulinski, Chad Ferguson and Austin Hendy worked with Miller in his research. "My students and I have been focusing on beta diversity, which can be viewed as measuring the amount of difference in the compositions of biotas in different places. There has never been a systematic analysis of changes through time in the level of beta diversity, yet this may hold the key not only to understanding fundamental principles of global diversification, but for helping to solve longstanding controversies about exactly what the history of aggregate global diversity looks like.

"In the GSA talk, I will present the method that we have developed for assessing beta diversity in a meaningful way (not a trivial task) and I will present some tantalizing preliminary results suggesting that beta diversity near the present day may actually be lower than it was in the Paleozoic Era. If, in our future work, this is borne out and we are able to demonstrate that beta diversity actually declined through time, this would probably suggest, among other things, that aggregate global diversity did not increase as much some researchers have thought."

The World Is Our Laboratory

Lewis Owen is a worldly scholar. He received his degrees in the United Kingdom, but that is not all. His co-authors, besides UC student Yeong Bae Seong, are from the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory in California and the Institute of Tibetan Plateau Research in Beijing. But their research site is even more remote: Tibet and the Himalaya.

"The glaciation in Tibet and the Himalaya is essentially controlled by two major climatic systems; the mid-latitude westerlies and south Asian summer monsoon. To help resolve the relative importance of these climatic systems, we studied two massifs in northwestern Tibet, Mushtagata and Mt. Kongur, of which present-day climates are influenced solely by the mid-latitude westerlies and are beyond the influence of the monsoon," the abstract explains. "The temporal variations of glaciations of in this region are not in phase with other areas of the Tibetan Plateau that are dominantly affected by Indian Summer Monsoon, but are broadly synchronous with Northern Hemisphere. Interestingly, our data show that glaciations in the semi-arid northwestern Tibet since Last Glacial Maximum are likely linked to Northern Hemisphere cooling events (Rapid Climate Changes) by Mid-latitude Westerlies."

K-Bentonite (no it doesn't make Superman weak)

Some of the presentations at GSA are talks, given by the researchers. Some of the sessions are poster displays with the researcher nearby to answer questions. One of these poster sessions is being presented by geology professor Warren Huff on behalf of a former student. Huff is world renowned for his expertise in k-bentonites. (Read about another former student of his at last year's GSA.)

"I worked with one of our seniors last year, Patrick Grady Marker, on a project that was his capstone experience. Our question was, and the title of the poster is, 'What is a K-bentonite?'" says Huff. "Briefly, K-bentonites are clay-rich layers ranging from a few millimeters to several meters in thickness that represent the altered remains of volcanic ash deposits. They can often be traced for hundreds of miles and make excellent 'timelines' for geologic correlation. That is, since they were rapidly deposited, they are the same age everywhere and can be used to show the age equivalence of different rock formations. They are extremely useful in the oil industry, for example. The problem is, how do you tell them from simple beds of shale or clay. Our poster answers that question."

Water always finds a way out (Cameroonian proverb)

Professor Tom Lowell is co-author on four abstracts, two related to one project. He, too, is pulling double duty as co-author and presenter.

"Although my student is first author on one of those, he is getting married so I am presenting that abstract," says Lowell. "Abrupt climate changes at the end of the last ice age are thought to result from sudden discharges into the oceans from melting ice sheets. We find that two suggested pathways were blocked by the glacier and thus the fresh water could not have come from that source. This requires rethinking the meltwater hypothesis and perhaps rather fresh water has a role in abrupt climate changes at all."

University of Cincinnati

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