Accretionary Wedge No. 47: Field Notes

I am very happy to be hosting Accretionary Wedge this month. For the last couple of years, I’ve been a Program Director at NSF, funding research and field activities and workshops and graduate fellowships and whatever else we can afford. But before I was a Fed, I was an igneous petrologist / analytical geochemist who had to do lots of field work.

And I miss it.

A lot.

So I thought I would use AW47 to dig back through some of my field notes and photos and share them, in the hope that you’ll join in and share yours, too.

In the field, I keep two notebooks; one for documenting samples and field sites, and one for documenting the more… qualitative aspects of the trip. I could share a lot of science here, but I got completely distracted by the latter of the two books. In 2001, I was in Costa Rica (and later Nicaragua), where I enjoyed noting non-geologic things, such as cow sightings, or the fact that the moon looks different near the equator:

29 June 01: “…we encountered a herd of cows at an old quarry – the calves were very intrigued by our presence… The moon is at a different angle so near to the equator, it’s neat…”

When we got to Nicaragua, my eyes were opened to a lot of things. Poverty, major political unrest, and my first crater. It was an overwhelming trip:

[date unknown]: I was writing about how much harsher life felt there, relative to Costa Rica “…in the people’s sad eyes and in their land and homes and the way they talk to us…went to Masaya volcano, my first look at a live crater. Wow. It was degassing – big pulses of cloudy gasses kept pouring out, stinking of sulfer [sic, nice job JW] and maybe chlorine? Never in the US could we drive up to the rim of a crater. It’s incredible to see into the belly of a volcano – a window into the subsurface. Absolutely incredible.  The other highlight of the day was Laguna Apoyo – a crater lake that, as legend tells it, used to house a serpent egg that hatched the dragon who joined tails with another (on Nicoya Peninsula” to shake + cause earthquakes. Saw a millipede on an outcrop. Also saw houses with bulletholes and old Sandinista propeganda [sic] all over the towns – this is a very troubled place. After the big quake in Managua a few years ago, they couldn’t even rebuild, they just put up a few new buildings elsewhere – it’s a dreary sprawl.”

At one point on this trip, we rescued a baby goat, which, if you know anything about me, was pretty much THE BEST DAY EVER:

“A long but fantastic day. Tom has perfected his monkey call. We picked + ate fresh mangoes, and collected ~ 100 samples of great ash flows. Around 3, we encountered a herd of goats, who were walking away from a mama and her baby, who was tiny and trapped in a little canal valley. Tom rescued the goatlet, and the mama + baby ran toward each other, bleating out happy and frantic hello’s. It was the greatest event yet.”

And just to prove that I also sometimes wrote about samples, here’s a page from the science notebook, with an important lesson that Erik Hauri and I learned about training for the field, while climbing up the steep slopes of various Mariana volcanoes in 2004: “Next time, less treadmill, more stairmaster.”

Wise words.

I may write again this month, digging into the science side of what it’s like to hike around the tropics in search of juvenile, olivine-bearing (hopefully melt-inclusion-containing) scoria, but for now, I invite you to tell me what it’s like for YOU in the field! Share your stories, your photos, your videos, your anything, and link to it in the comments.


Cascadia from the sky

Last week, I was in Portland for the GeoPRISMS-EarthScope planning workshop for Cascadia. The meeting was fantastic, full of great science being talked about by great scientists. But it’s panel week at NSF, and I don’t have time summarize it at the moment, so I thought I’d just share some views from the way home.

Portland is conveniently located near several volcanoes, but Mt. Hood is the closest.

Mt. Hood

Can you see its volcanic neighbors in the background?

Mt. Hood



I can’t remember how far we’d gone when I saw this crazy meandering river, but I love everything about it…

crazy river

…and everyone loves a good contrail.



Disaster polling, Part 2

In Part 1 of this series, I introduced you to the 43 respondents who answered some questions about their perceptions of natural disasters around the world. Let’s see how well they did on some questions about natural hazards in the US, and beyond.

I asked, True or False: There are volcanoes in the lower 48 states of the US.

93% answered True. They’re right! Look at all the triangles on this map. The west coast is an especially busy place.

I asked, True or False: There are volcanoes in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

88% answered True. They’re right! Here, let David Attenborough tell you about them.

I asked, True of False: Every time an earthquake happens, a tsunami is generated.

5% answered True. They’re wrong, not every earthquake causes a tsunami. In fact, the percentage of tsunamigenic earthquakes out of all the earthquakes that happen in a given year is pretty tiny (and not all tsunamis are triggered by earthquakes – submarine landslides can cause them as well).

Do our respondents think earthquakes are preventable? 100% said no (and they are correct). Do our respondents think earthquakes are predictable? 28% said yes. This is a hotly debated topic, about which I have a personal opinion, but it would be inappropriate for me to share that here. I can say that there is a range of predictive timescales. There are those who think animal behavior, minutes or seconds before an earthquake, can be used as a predictor (though the USGS tells us these are warnings, not predictors – they may just feel P waves before we can). Some agencies, including the Japan Meteorological Agency (among others) have a system for early warning, based again on early detection (not prediction). Other scientists are using reverse tracing of earthquake precursors to model past events, in an attempt to predict future events that have similar precursors.

Then there are the researchers who think they can identify places where an earthquake is likely to happen within some number of years: They wait for Supermoons, or monitor gas release or groundwater movement, or more commonly look at large-scale strain buildup in the crust and regional seismicity over time. But even these data don’t tell a predictable story. For instance, for years in Japan, researchers thought they knew exactly what part of the plate boundary would rupture next. Then the Tohoku earthquake happened, surprisingly to many, in a very different place.

Like I said, this is hotly debated, and admittedly not my field of expertise. So let’s get back to the polling. Earthquakes and tsunamis are just two of many possible disasters in the world. Which have our respondents actually experienced?

Of the 43 people who answered, 1 person has experienced an earthquake, a volcanic eruption, a hurricane, AND a tsunami (and s/he is the only person to have experienced that last one). 67% of the respondents have experienced an earthquake, and of those, most also have experienced a hurricane (the most commonly-experienced disaster, at 77%), tornado (19%), or both. Only 14% of respondents have experienced a volcanic eruption.

When asked which volcano produced the biggest eruption in recorded human history, 53% answered Krakatau (nope), 9% Pinatubo (nope) and 37% Tambora (yep). Tambora’s 1815 eruption actually released 4x the energy of Krakatau, killed tens of thousands of people, and caused it to snow in New York in June. All in all, pretty scary.

But are volcanoes the thing that scare our respondents the most?

I listed a series of disasters, both natural and human-induced, and asked people to rate their fear on a scale of 1-5, where 1 = “I am most afraid of this horrible thing” and 5 = “I am either not afraid of this, or it’s not my priority to freak out about it.”

The results: Health-related disasters, like a biological terrorist attack, rampant disease, or famine ranked highest, with earthquakes and nuclear meltdown close behind. Volcanic eruptions are way down the list, scarier than zombies, but not as scary as a wildfire. This was interesting to me – we hear a lot in the news about terrorism, air safety, nuclear plant safety, and even earthquakes and eruptions. But I rarely hear more than a passing mention of famine and disease, while in some parts of the world millions are experiencing one or both, and it clearly ranks at the very high end of fears. These are the same respondents who say we’re hearing about more storms and earthquakes because they’re simply being reported on more often.

This makes me wonder if I listed “global climate change,” where it might fall. Are these slower-burning, less cataclysmic disasters lower on the priority list for news organizations, while more frightening to those who take a minute to rank what they fear in the world? These questions make me wish we got more than 43 respondents. These are the statistics of small numbers, and I would love to see how these results change with a broader sampling. Clearly a lot of scientists (especially earth scientists) answered, but what if we had more non-scientists in the mix? Would concerns change?

The results also made me wish we’d asked for respondents’ locations – do they live in a city, a farm town, on a coast, next to a power plant? That’s a lesson learned. I crave context to these data. We did ask, at one point, for people to rank their fears specifically about they place they live, and terrorist attacks and zombies ranked #1 (possibly in part because I know a lot of people in DC, where these two things are oft discussed).

My own fears rank very differently, and I’m sure that’s in part due to the things I encounter quite often (airplanes, known prior terrorist targets, the coastline). And maybe this speaks to my nature, but I realize in looking at this list that some things that I love, like volcanoes, are beautiful from afar, but quite terrifying if you’re on the wrong flank at the wrong time, which I have been.

What about your fears? Is there something we should be worried about that I missed?

Disaster polling, Part 1

In September of 2011, following a conversation at work about the relative roles of scientists and the media in the public’s perception of natural disasters, I sent a short poll out on Twitter and Facebook. I was interested in what kinds of disasters people fear the most (earthquakes? volcanic eruptions? terrorist attacks?) as well as how the media has shaped people’s views of disasters, and the frequency of their occurrence.

I’ve finally taken a few hours to stare at the poll results, so I’ll summarize them over the next few posts.

First, let’s get to know the people that responded. There were 43 of them, and their education level broke down thusly:

… and those respondents, when asked to “summarize your current job category in 5 words or less” identified themselves as:

When asked how many times a week they read or watch something relating to science, they answered:

… and then I asked, “When a disaster is happening, to whom do you turn for information?”

Now that we’ve got a feel for who responded, and what their news sources are, let’s dig into what they think about the world around them.

When asked, “Do you believe that human activity on Earth has impacted the climate?” 100% answered Yes (this made me happy).

When asked, “Why are we hearing about more earthquakes in the world lately?” 90% said that social media and major media report on things more than in the past, while 10% said more earthquakes are occurring than in the past.

When asked the same question about severe storms, 74% said that social media and major media report on things more, while 26% said more storms are occurring than in the past.

I won’t dive too deeply into this right now, but it’s an interesting difference. Scientists, including those at the USGS, tell us that earthquakes aren’t on the rise – we’re just doing a better and more comprehensive job of monitoring, detecting, locating, and reporting on earthquakes around the world. When it comes to storms: Several scientists would argue that yes, we are experiencing more severe storms than, say, a few decades earlier (and this of course depends on where you are in the world, and this of course is better discussed elsewhere).

I asked our respondents, “Which natural disasters do you think have been the most deadly, worldwide, over the last 200 years?”


I realize that floods and tsunamis could, at times, be considered to overlap, but if we look at death tolls by natural disaster either on this older NOAA compilation [PDF] or this Wikipedia list (which is in need of verification), river-based floods are terrible, especially in China, and are unrelated to tsunami floodwaters. It’s clear that earthquakes, storms, and tsunamis also take their toll. Volcanic eruptions are pretty low on the list, in terms of human casualties, though if one considers long-term effects of all that ash in the air, the numbers might go up. Similarly, if one considers long-term health and infrastructure effects of combined earthquake and tsunami disasters, like in Haiti, the numbers get more complicated. But this is a series about perception, let’s save that conversation for another day.

In the next post, we’ll talk about earthquake prediction, and our respondents’ fears of everything from volcanoes to zombies.

Geology books for kids

This week, a friend tweeted this at me: Any recommendations on a good geology book for a second grader? I heard, “Dad, I want to be a geologist,” today. #proudpapa

Once I finished cheering, I sat down in front of my geology bookcase to take stock. For years, my mother has picked up random children’s books about geology for me. I don’t have any kids, but it’s sort of interesting, sometimes fun, and often painful, to see how geology is addressed in books meant for the younger crowd. Here’s my current stash, all donated from mom, and with an obvious volcano-bias (given my own research interests):

Some books do a great job of explaining processes, and give some activities to help them understand (like making a core sample with clay), while others distill things down to be so over-simplified that I want to write letters of correction, and still others tell stories about big geologic events. There are a LOT of Pompeii books out there, and according to my teacher-friend, these are a big hit in the classroom (explosions! death! people running from clouds of ash!)

But when it comes down to which I would recommend for my friend’s second grader, I choose carefully from my stash and add a few that I would seek out, were I to raise my own team of mini-volcanologists.

1. Every kid should have a basic rock and mineral ID book. The DK Pockets are pretty great – full of actual photographs, these have an interesting layout, and are small enough for your kid to carry around while on a hike or just wandering the neighborhood. They’re releasing a new one that looks cool in May, 2012. The Smithsonian Handbook version is a little bigger, and less portable, but really awesome.

2. This thin Smithsonian paperback has some nice summaries and photographs of actual volcanoes and their recent eruptions – cheap, and a nice way to relate to the world around you.

3. I like this general Volcanoes and Earthquakes book by Eldridge Moores at UC Davis (large, with red border in my stash photo) which is part of the TimeLife series, of all things – it’s hard to find (I’m glad I have one!) though Powell’s has a few. It’s possible Ken Rubin’s book is similar and quite good (he’s a respected scientist), though I’ve never seen it in person. This DK Eyewitness is similar, too – lots of photos, stories about earth-related myths, as well as actual science.

4. To learn about the region in which you’re raising your kiddo, you could try the “Geology of…” series. The text is a little advanced, and there are a lot of cartoony drawings, but they have some nice activities that, as a parent, you could use to teach some things about the geology around you.

5. The Step into Reading Series has a fairly well-done Pompeii story for grades 2-3, among other earth-science related titles.

There are some nice online introductions too, like the Smithsonian’s interactive Dynamic Earth site, but I’m a big fan of starting with paper. This is by no means a comprehensive list – I’m sure there are great books out there more focused on rivers, or dinosaurs, or glacial till. Do you have favorite earth science books for kids? Let us know in the comments!

Geologic Genealogy

Earlier today, Jessica Ball at Magma Cum Laude, posted a great summary of her “geologic genealogy.” She’s not alone in being asked about her academic lineage, so I thought I would dig back as far as I could, and share my own.

I did both an MS and a PhD. Here’s a sketch to make it a little clearer, since the ‘families’ sort of intertwine:



My PhD advisor was the incomparable Terry Plank (note: at the time she advised me, she was at Boston University). Her advisor was Charlie Langmuir, currently at Harvard. His advisor was Gilbert Hanson, whose advisor was Paul W. Gast, who was one of the “Four Horsemen;”  lunar geoscientists (of whom he was chief) and consultants to NASA during Apollo. Go read his 1971 paper, “The chemical composition and structure of the moon.” Gast was also the first Goldschmidt medalist (in fact, there is a Geochemical Society lecture named for him).

Prior to my time with Terry, I did an MS at Michigan State with Lina Patino, who, oddly enough, is now at NSF in an office adjacent to mine. This is where it gets incestuous: Terry served on Lina’s PhD defense committee as an external member. Lina’s advisor, Mike Carr at Rutgers (who wrote the IgPet software package, and knows everything about Central America) served on MY defense committee. His advisor was Dick Stoiber, who was at Dartmouth when Terry was there, and introduced her to Central American geochemistry, and oh look that’s what a chunk of my dissertation was about. Stoiber was interesting… a volcanologist who felt that international study and travel were essential. He was one of the first to make foreign experience part of the curriculum, taking students down to Central America to study in the field.

Everyone named above has produced an incredibly productive and interesting set of siblings and cousins for me. Backwards in time, I’m not sure where the lines go past Gast and Stoiber, but I’m proud to be a part of this crew.


Photos come from the embedded links for each person above, except for Lina Patino who would be quite mad at me for putting her photo on the internet (so you get a photo I took of a Costa Rican waterfall, instead) and the one of me (which my friend Samer took in Iceland).