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Placing geology at the foundation of essential discoveries

Placing geology at foundation of essential discoveries


March 29, 2024 | Carleton College

by Daniel Myer 

Above: Professor Bereket Haileab leads a geology field trip in 2023.

Bereket Haileab, MS'88, PHD'95, chair and professor of geology at Carleton College, is a researcher and teacher animated by his passion for geology.

Bereket Haileab

Haileab has been a cornerstone of geology at Carleton College, a small, private liberal arts college in the historic river town of Northfield, Minnesota, since he joined the faculty in 1993. Through his research over the years, he has also helped rejuvenate the study of the guiding principles behind his discipline, and connected that work with the larger Northfield and Carleton communities. His experiences, ranging from studying Rice County’s hydrology to helping chart the founding story of the entire human species, have revealed the role geology plays in multiple major disciplines. Today, he teaches these lessons to new generations of students, and shows that the College’s geology department is a true testament to the quality of a Carleton education.

At first, Haileab’s work had a utilitarian angle. After his undergraduate education at the University of Addis Ababa in Ethiopia, he had the opportunity to study for his PhD with well-known geochemists at the University of Utah. “There,” Haileab said, “I got the skills to do chemical analysis, interpret the results, and write about it.”

These experiences solidified his background in geochemistry, petrology, and mineralogy, which Haileab used to become an exploration geologist with the Geological Survey of Ethiopia. In his role, Haileab surveyed regions of western Ethiopia to find new gold deposits. Although he found the chance to apply his skills in chemical analysis fulfilling, he was interested in getting more involved with the interdisciplinary field of paleoanthropology — the study of human evolution through fossils, cultural artifacts, and more — which his graduate school experiences had introduced him to.

“When I came to Utah, I went to the field every summer and met many [experts in paleoanthropology] there and in meetings,” Haileab said. “My research was used in every place.”

Those who study the origin of the human species, like paleoanthropologists, depend on extensive geological research. With a lot of their modern work based on the fossils of early people or closely related species, scholars and scientists also need those fossils’ detailed geological contexts, including the current state and geologic history of their dig sites. After all, Haileab said, “you don’t find fossils floating by themselves.”

In 1985, Haileab joined a University of Utah research group working in Kenya, where just one year prior, the “Turkana Boy,” a Homo ergaster, was discovered. Haileab’s group needed to map the surrounding Turkana Basin in order to refine the dating process that allowed geologists and paleoanthropologists to prove that the Turkana Boy was 1.6 million years old. Haileab’s research, however, expanded far beyond one basin.

“We found that the volcanic ash from Turkana, to the sediments of the Red Sea cores, to the sediments in the Gulf of Aden, all the way south to Lake Albert in Uganda, to Ethiopia… was all formed originally [in the Turkana Basin], which makes it the most important point,” Haileab said. “For most of the fossiliferous [fossil rich] sediments, we could correlate all of the sedimentary basins and all of the findings temporally.”

Read the entire article at Carleton News.

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Cataract Canyon Comes Back to Life

Cataract Canyon Comes Back to Life


February 18, 2024 | Rolling Stone

Damming the Colorado River wiped out a magnificent stretch of rapids for half a century. Now, incredibly, they’re returning — on their own

Brenda Bowen. Professor of Geology & Geophysics | Chair of the Department of Atmospheric Sciences | Director, Global Change and Sustainability Center

“I cannot emphasize how amazing, and important, it is that Returning Rapids [a small group of river-rafting enthusiasts who consider Cataract Canyon a second home] is convening the science community around this, and bringing in agencies and tribal communities and people from different backgrounds,” says Brenda Bowen, a geoscientist with the University of Utah who’s been coming on Returning Rapids trips since 2019. “It’s already changed the trajectory of the outcomes of this landscape because they’ve brought more attention to it, and they’re helping people organize around it.”

And yet many river rafters, conservationists, and scientists see these lower reaches of Cataract Canyon, for all of their scientific, cultural, and recreational significance, as falling through the cracks of government-agency management, where no precedent seems to exist for who takes responsibility for a reservoir turned returning river. Eric Balken, executive director of the Glen Canyon Institute, which focuses on restoring the Glen and Grand canyons, says that “many land and water managers treat the emerging landscape as an area that will one day be under water again, even though the data suggests the opposite. This management approach of ‘That’s just where the reservoir used to be, it’s not important’ is so misguided. As the reservoir comes down, what’s emerging has similar qualities to all the popular and cherished parks and monuments in this area, like Bears Ears, Grand Staircase Escalante, and Grand Canyon.”

A recent environmental impact report by the Bureau of Reclamation, which is in charge of dams, implied erroneously that mostly invasive species were returning as Lake Powell’s water level dropped. But Returning Rapids  has brought scientists down Cataract, who find native plants returning, birds returning as shorelines emerge, beavers returning as willows and cottonwoods sprout on those shorelines. In response to a request for comment, the Bureau of Reclamation directed me back to the report with the erroneous implications.

Canyonlands National Park, which manages the river, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area (NRA), which manages the reservoir, tell me in a joint statement that the agencies are aware of the landscape emerging in Cataract; staff see it on routine river patrols and receive Returning Rapids’ trip reports. Both agencies “maintain active programs for resource monitoring throughout the park, including monitoring of archaeological sites, monitoring for invasive vegetation species, and monitoring of various plants and wildlife species. As the lake level drops, areas of shoreline are incorporated into the park’s existing science-based monitoring and research programs to understand and respond to the changing lake environment.”

Returning Rapids regularly shares its observations and data collected from scientists on its trips with these and other agency managers, and has invited and brought Canyonlands officials on its science expeditions. Mike DeHoff [a river runner and local from Moab, Utah, has] invited officials from the NRA, but none have yet accepted. Although Returning Rapids recently attained a new degree of credibility in becoming a project under the Glen Canyon Institute, often when DeHoff shares real-time data of changing conditions with agency decision-makers, he says, he’s usually greeted with some iteration of “Wait, who are you guys?”

Read the entire article by Cassidy Randall with photographs by Len Neceferin in

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Busy as a Beaver: Utah Forge

Busy as a beaver: Utah Forge


February 29, 2024
Above: Utah FORGE's Gosia Skowron discusses thermal characteristics with students in a classroom visit. Credit Flash Point SLC


Beaver dams might look like scattered piles of sticks in the water but they serve an important role in offering protection and a training ground for young beavers to learn dam-building skills. In Beaver County, Utah — named after the many beaver dams in the region — another project has successfully been providing benefits to its community: The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) Geothermal Technologies Office’s (GTO) largest initiative, the Frontier Observatory for Research in Geothermal Energy (FORGE).

Deep in the heart of this rocky area in the western United States, FORGE researchers, scientists, and other professionals are working hard to advance enhanced geothermal systems (EGS). FORGE has realized many achievements in EGS since GTO launched the initiative in 2015—including becoming a full-scale underground research laboratory with eight wells covering more than 10 miles drilled in total.

The initiative is managed by the Energy & Geoscience Institute at the University of Utah where faculty from the Department of Geology & Geophysics are deeply enmeshed.

As the site continues to grow toward its technical goals for EGS, FORGE staff also educate and engage with local residents and students to increase awareness about the clean energy that can be harnessed through the heat beneath their feet. Their outreach work in this area is proving valuable to help local officials, residents, and businesses understand geothermal energy, and in forging substantive relationships and understanding with the community as they've expanded the technical capacity of their site.

The staff’s dedication to improving basic knowledge of geothermal technologies is clear throughout its outreach activities. “They're very visible, they're here all the time, they're talking all the time,” said Beaver County Commissioner Tammy Pearson of the FORGE team at DOE’s Enhanced Geothermal Shot™ summit in 2023. “They do quarterly reports with our commission. They are really integrating in the education system, in our elementary schools and the high schools. I think they are just so consistent in their visibility and engagement."

In November 2023, the team held a workshop for teachers to learn more about the “heat beneath our feet” and FORGE’s work (check out their resources for teachers). In addition, FORGE’s outreach team has visited several classrooms and even created a geothermal song parody contest for students. The FORGE team also works to develop and distribute resources to K-12 and university-level students and supports classroom activities and science fairs.


Watch a video and read the rest of the article (with more photos) by the Office of ENERGY EFFICIENCY & RENEWABLE ENERGY.

University of Utah students BJ Iturrieta and Sarah Buening "flash the U" while hosting the Utah FORGE booth during the university's Welcome Week. Credit: Utah FORGE

 

 

 

 

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Remembering Alan Rigby

Remembering Alan D. Rigby 1969-2024


On January 2, 2024 Alan David Rigby of West Valley City, Utah, passed away unexpectedly at the young age of 54. He was born on January 22, 1969 and spent his childhood in Taylorsville, Utah. After graduating from Taylorsville High School in 1987, Alan attended the University of Utah to study Environmental Earth Sciences. In the late 80s, Alan began working in the Department of Geology and Geophysics as an undergraduate, helping Thure Cerling study cosmogenic dating of the Lava Falls debris flow in the Grand Canyon. After graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1995, he continued his career at the U and helped to build and manage the Noble Gas Lab, which he did for many years. He was the best tour guide for visiting groups and was surrounded by the most intelligent and dedicated people. He thoroughly enjoyed his time there and created friendships that he treasured.

Here below, colleagues Thure Cerling and Kip Solomon reflect on their time with Alan.


 

By Thure Cerling

Alan began working in my laboratory as an undergraduate in the early 1990s; I needed someone to work on mineral separates for cosmogenic dating, a technique recently developed for dating Quaternary events. Always willing, always enthusiastic, I found Alan an ideal person for the sometimes tedious, but critical, job of obtaining pure olivine or pyroxene separates for 3He analysis.

In 1994, while Alan as still an undergraduate I had the opportunity to meet a US Geological Survey Grand Canyon rafting trip at Lava Falls.  Alan was an obvious choice for my companion on the trip. The scientific question was whether we could date the debris flows that resulted in this famous river rapids – one of the best known in the world.  Research trips in the Grand Canyon are generally in the winter months, and indeed our trip was in late February.

Our plan was to fly to St George, rent a car, then drive to Vulcan’s Throne on the northern rim of the canyon, and then hike down to the river, a drop of about 800 meters over a very short distance – about 1000 meters on the map.  We left Salt Lake City in a dual propeller plane, and climbed to our cruising altitude. “Alan”, I said, “isn’t that propeller slowing down?”.  Indeed, it slowed until barely turning, and we turned back to Salt Lake on the single right engine.  So we got my 4-Runner, grabbed two sandwiches from Crown Burger, and drove the six or so hours to Vulcan’s Throne, reaching the campsite on the canyon rim about 10 at night.  A cold night’s camping, a quick breakfast, and then a hike down the scree slope of volcanic cinder.  The trail switch-backed down the slope and each of us would send a cascade of cinders and gravel down the slope in front of us.  The lead person would find a safe refuge, at the edge or behind an exceptionally large boulder, while the following person made his way down, sending a skitter of gravel down towards the bottom.

Safely at the bottom, the USGS group had already arrived and sent raft across the river to fetch us.  We spent a few days at Lava Falls, collected sufficient samples for dating which fortunately could be put on the USGS rafts and taken downstream. But someone had to fetch the car at the top of the Canyon and that was Alan.  With Ted Melis, Alan and I hiked up the Vulcan’s throne trail where he could fetch the car and drive back to Salt Lake City; then Ted and I hiked back down to the river.  We were able to date the debris flows; the debris forming Lava Falls is about 3000 years old, and initially dammed the river to a depth of at least 22 meters, some 2 times greater than the drop today.

Alan came along on several other of those trips, always willing to make the long hike in and retrieve the car at the top.  Such a cheerful camper, willing worker in the lab and in the field.

In the later 1990s Kip Solomon and I were funded by NSF to purchase a noble gas mass spectrometer and set up a noble gas lab – Kip to work on the tritium-3He dating method for groundwater and me to work on cosmogenic isotopes.  We had to visit the MAP mass spectrometer lab near Manchester and Alan accompanied me to UK to discuss logistics with Mike Lynch, the MAP designer as these mass spectrometers were made individually.  Airfares were considerably less if we stayed over a Saturday night and so Alan and I arrived in Manchester early on a Saturday on a bleak November day.  What to do for the weekend – I suggested Hadrian’s Wall and so off we went in a rented car.  We explored Hadrians’ Wall for the day, hiking along the base, exploring Roman ruins, and thinking how miserable to be a Roman soldier uprooted from Italy and banished to the Scottish lowlands to protest a stupid wall in the middle of nowhere.  Wanting a good and early night’s sleep, we found a cosy English Inn in Haltwhistle at about 4 pm just as the sun was setting.  The expansive bar with low ceilings was empty except for the proprietor who assured us that he had plenty of room for us that evening — after all, it was November and the very very low part of the tourist season.  We checked the rooms, which were just above the bar, and they looked cosy and warm with a fireplace.  So we were just about to sign up when we noticed a newcomer in the bar —  all dressed in white with spangles and cowboy boots and an electric guitar.  “What’s that?”, we asked.  “We are having an Elvis Presley look-alike contest tonight — with music and you are welcome!”  Badly needing sleep, we declined!

After returning to Salt Lake, having decided to go with the MAP mass spectrometer, Alan became part of our team to set up the extraction lines and then the MAP when it eventually arrived in Salt Lake City.  He was a key part of the laboratory, running samples for the tritium-3He dating of groundwater, carefully monitoring the 1600 °C furnace for melting minerals and extracting cosmogenic gases for dating.

In all, Alan worked in our department for some 30 years. He was devoted to the department and was a key part of the day-to-day workings for many of us.

In one sentence: if you are on an airplane when one of the engine fails, you would be hard pressed to find a better seat mate than Alan Rigby!

 


By Kip Solomon

I first met Alan shortly after I returned to the University of Utah in 1993 as faculty member.  Alan and I immediately had common ground as we had both been undergraduates at the U and both had worked for Thure Cerling and Frank Brown.

When Thure and I received an NSF grant to build a noble gas system, Alan was the obvious choice to help build the extraction lines and operate the mass spectrometer.  Alan’s mechanical skills were evident as he bolted together and made leak tight more than 60 valves, hundreds of fittings, a 10 ˚K cold head, and associated high vacuum pumps.  When we were developing the helium ingrowth method for tritium analyses and needed an inexpensive metal container to store water under high vacuum for several months, Alan had a great idea.  Why not use copper floats used in toilet tanks?  These proved to be cheap, leak tight, and became known as the toilet tritium method!

Alan’s skills were utilized both in the lab and field.  When the Nature Conservancy asked us to investigate the source of water for the Matheson Wetland Preserve (near Moab Utah), Alan helped develop a system for installing wells using a portable jack hammer.  The wells he installed formed the basis for a graduate student thesis, field course for geological engineers, and most recently a cooperative project with the U.S. Geological Survey that redefined the water resources of the Moab Spanish Valley.

Alan became so well known to the local Swagelok dealer (Salt Lake Valve and Fitting) that they made several attempts at hiring him away from the University.  To my great fortune, and the University’s, Alan stayed at the University for his entire career.

In addition to his extraordinary technical skills, Alan was a people person who enjoyed interacting with clients of the noble gas lab, students, faculty, and staff.  His pleasant demeanor and patience became a huge asset to the lab as he interfaced with researchers and consultants who all wanted their samples run NOW!  Somehow, Alan was able to calm the crowds and answer their questions over and over regarding the specialized sample collections methods.

While I don’t recall ever seeing Alan angry, his love and empathy for his family and friends was clear as their problems became his problems.  Family was always Alan’s top priority as he worked through many challenges including the early passing of his father and health issues with his young children.  The well-being of his family was always on his mind and the topic of many lunchtime conversations over the years.  He has been an absolute staple in the Department for more than 30 years.

Harley Benz Distinguished Alumnus

2022 DistinGuished AlumnUS


February 29, 2024

Among the nation’s preeminent earthquake seismologists, Harley Benz MS’82, PhD’86, scientist emeritus at the US Geological Survey (USGS)’s Earthquake Hazards Program, first worked at the USGS in Menlo Park, California, and then, beginning in 1993, in Golden, Colorado.

 

With positions in the Branch of Seismology, the Branch of Earthquake and Geomagnetic Information, and the Geologic Hazards Team, he became the Technical Manager of the Advanced National Seismic System (ANSS) which oversees and coordinates seismic network operations throughout the US. In 2022 the Department of Geology & Geophysics recognized him with the 2022 Distinguished Alumnus Award.

In 2003, Benz was appointed ANSS Megaproject Chief, overseeing the National Earthquake Information Center (NEIC) which is the world’s pre-eminent seismic monitoring system. Benz also played a role in the modernization of earthquake operations within the participating seismic networks, after co-authoring “An Assessment of Seismic Monitoring in the United States,” the 1999 Congressional Report that led to the formation and funding of the ANSS. The success of ANSS was due in no small part due to Benz’ ability to engender trust and respect from the regional network operators who were essential to the program’s success, according to the commendations from his colleagues.

Benz is credited with helping to modernize USGS earthquake analyses, reporting procedures and facilities, in particular revising the data processing and operations at NEIC to become less labor intensive and more automated. Under his leadership, rapid notifications, web services and data feeds became routine as ways to rapidly disseminate earthquake information to government agencies, emergency managers, the media and the general public. NEIC now processes continuous data from more than 2,200 seismic stations contributed by more than 145 seismic networks across the globe.

Benz’ use of innovative communication products, especially ArcGIS StoryMaps, demonstrate his commitment to sharing earthquake science. The use of story maps to place complex events into tectonic and seismological context so that they are understandable to a broad audience has been equally groundbreaking in classrooms and newsrooms, according to Benz’ colleagues. (The story map created for the 2023 Kahramanmaraş, Turkey, earthquake sequence is one such example.)

Along with his mentorship of dozens of graduate students, postdoctoral students and early career scientists, Benz forged a number of international partnerships during his time at USGS. He aided in the development of the Caribbean and N4 networks and expansion of the Global Seismographic Network, and expanded ties with the nuclear test ban treaty monitoring community that analyzes global seismic signals through the International Monitoring System (IMS). High-quality digital data from each of these networks is now available in real-time for NEIC, as a result of his efforts.

A native of Georgia, Benz earned his BS in geophysics from the University of Kansas and has been involved in a broad range of research and applications in earthquake seismology. This includes imaging earth structure, earthquake detection, modeling of seismic sources, and near-real-time location and moment-tensor calculation to inform earthquake disaster response. Additionally, the range of his work extends to measurement and prediction of strong ground motion; seismic discrimination between natural seismicity and nuclear explosions; understanding earthquake swarms; induced seismicity and its implications for seismic hazard; seismic network operations; and generation and management of earthquake catalogs. His expertise and knowledge in these areas have informed his continual efforts to educate college students and the general public about earthquake hazards.

In addition to educating college students—most recently as an adjunct professor at the U during the 2021-2022 academic year—Benz has also been an exceptional leader in meeting USGS’s missions to quantify seismic hazards and to inform national, state, and local governments, private industry, and the general public about such earthquake hazards and their mitigation.

The Distinguished Alumni Award is given regularly by the Department of Geology & Geophysics. This past fall David Braxton MS’97 was announced as the 2023 recipient. His profile will appear in an upcoming issue of Down to Earth.

You can read the entire Geology & Geophysics Department magazine Down to Earth where this story originally appeared here.

Sizing Up Courthouse Crack

Sizing Up Courthouse Crack


February 29, 2024

Geohazards, due to the way they constantly change, are a source of useful research into landslides and how they happen.

 

^ Erin Jensen at the Courthouse Mesa. Credit: courtesy of Erin Jensen. ^^ Banner Photo: Erin Jensen in Courthouse Crack. Credit: Jeff Moore.

When landslides and slope failures occur in our built and natural environments, damaging property and threatening life, there’s a scramble to secure reliable assessments to prevent further damage. But what if there were ways to measure the character and instability of rock and soil beforehand and to predict potential disasters?

Recently, PhD student Erin Jensen used seismic resonance measurements to characterize the Courthouse Crack, a potentially hazardous rock slope near Moab, Utah that is part of the Courthouse Mesa. “It’s important to be able to see a site like this in person,” Jensen says, “and really appreciate the size and scale. I get to experience firsthand all the different mechanisms and influences that are happening at a particular site.”

Seismic resonance is an emerging technique within the field of geohazards and has allowed Jensen to collect more data on the Courthouse Mesa instability than can be obtained with traditional approaches.

Perhaps surprising to the uninitiated, structures like buildings, bridges, as well as natural rock formations like arches have natural vibration modes and are constantly in motion at their resonance frequencies. The new technique can help detect and characterize rock slope instabilities. Using sensitive seismic instruments has changed how researchers detect changes in slope stability and what those changes look like.

“Traditional techniques are easy to implement, and fairly inexpensive,” Jensen says. “But the main limitation is that they’re really only measuring the surface of an instability. They aren’t providing much information about the internal structure, or what’s going on at depth.”

Seismic monitoring not only bridges the gap between surface and subsurface techniques but does so without being structurally invasive, though it can be costly. In the end, Jensen used a combination of new and traditional techniques to create a clearer picture of the instability of Courthouse Crack as a whole.

The mother of invention
At sites like Courthouse Mesa, traditional methods include expensive means of drilling and field mapping which means measuring the cracks you can see, plotting it out on a map, and viewing the geometry of instability. Alternatively, generating field data with seismic resonance and then coupling the data with numerical models result in an improved picture of crack conditions, which Jensen then uses to describe the instability geometry and how the Courthouse Crack’s stability might fail. “The combination of new and traditional techniques,” Jensen says,  “generates an improved picture of landslide behavior and failure development.”

“We aren’t really concerned about imminent failure or any hazard to the public,” continues Jensen, specifically about Courthouse Mesa. “So it’s a really good spot to use as a field laboratory” and to use different seismic resonance techniques to understand work with rock slope instabilities and how they can be applied to different types of landslides, an obvious application for civil engineers, planners, and builders. Jensen’s work is a reminder that scientific inquiry is not just about discovering unknowns in the natural world but also about developing and refining new tools that have broader implications elsewhere. In this scenario, geological necessity has become the mother of invention.

With friends at Rainbow Bridge, Utah. Credit: courtesy Erin Jensen.

“I came to the U because I was interested in working with Jeff,” she says of Associate Professor Jeff Moore who is her advisor and leads the geohazards research group. His work focuses on the mechanics of processes driving natural hazards and shaping the evolution of bedrock landscapes. Utah is in fact a prime location for research into geohazards and understanding the instability of rock formations because of the abundance of natural rock formations found in places such as Arches National Park.

Jensen received her undergraduate degree in physics and civil engineering. Before coming to the U, she worked on a variety of landslide projects during her master’s degree work in geological engineering and with the US Geological Survey. At the U, she had an opportunity to develop and apply techniques that the geohazards group had been using for a decade. Before this, Moore and his group had used seismic resonance techniques to study natural arches and towers but had not yet applied these methods to large rock slope failures like those at Courthouse Mesa.

Jensen and Moore build on past studies in order to refine and move instrumentation forward by answering basic questions such as how the techniques of seismic resonance measuring can be used at other sites. Seismic resonance methods enable geohazard practitioners to better characterize and monitor potentially hazardous unstable rock slopes, especially those where invasive equipment cannot be installed, and again providing a potential service for developers and engineers.

Another benefit of the instruments Jensen is using is that she can continuously track seismic data to monitor how the site’s instability responds to temperature and rainfall changes. Jensen can use this data to check if the changes are associated with progressive failure of the rock slope. For this project, she used a single seismometer installed on the rock surface for three years and tracked the resonance frequencies of the landslide over time. What she found was that the Courthouse instability is particularly affected by thermal stresses created by heating and cooling, which causes the crack to open and close both daily and on a seasonal cycle. “We see a pretty big seasonal change,” Jensen says. “The Courthouse Crack opens and closes about fifty millimeters annually. It’s very slowly increasing and opening by millimeters per year.”

In the future, characterization measurements repeated in another season at the same site could be useful to observe the changes based on larger swings in temperature and climate. These measurements could also detect a continuing extension and failure of the cracked mesa. Coming back to the site several years later would be useful to observe changes in the overall geometry of the Courthouse Mesa.

Creating another technique in the toolkit of geological engineering is important for Jensen and her group because it helps mitigate outside risks. Her work, which is being published soon,  is instrumental in pushing the new technique for practical implementation and helps show how one can monitor landslide behavior. Conceptually, seismic resonance measuring can anticipate what kinds of other data and observations might be seen in other landslides.

Part of the project was stepping back from the site and doing conceptual and numerical modeling, such as testing out how frequency decreases with slope failure. This helps to predict how resonance frequencies will respond during progressive rock slope failures of different types. These models give new insights where field data does not exist, because instrumented rock slope failures are very rare.

Sometimes complex patterns of resonance frequency change before failure, and the models showed, for the first time, the expected form of resonance frequency change as ultimate slope collapse approaches. Field measurements like those at Courthouse Mesa are invaluable for establishing the new approach and understanding the limitations.

Erin Jensen’s work is taking her far afield from Utah. She is preparing for a postdoctoral fellowship with the US Geological Survey as part of the Mendenhall Research Fellowship Program. Her research will focus broadly on landslides in Alaska, as well as how landslides are affected by glacial retreat and climate change. <

By CJ Siebeneck

You can read the entire Geology & Geophysics Deptartment magazine Down to Earth where this story originally appeared here.

Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats Has Long Been in Flux

Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats has long been in flux


February 21, 2024

Salt crusts began forming long after Lake Bonneville disappeared, according to new U research that relied on pollen to date playa in western Utah.

 

Jeremiah Berneau. Credit: Chevron

It has been long assumed that Utah’s Bonneville Salt Flats was formed as its ancient namesake lake dried up 13,000 years ago. But new research from the University of Utah has gutted that narrative, determining these crusts did not form until several thousand years after Lake Bonneville disappeared, which could have important implications for managing this feature that has been shrinking for decades to the dismay of the racing community and others who revere the saline pan 100 miles west of Salt Lake City.

This salt playa, spreading across 40 square miles of the Great Basin Desert, perfectly level and white, has served as a stage for land-speed records and a backdrop for memorable scenes in numerous films, including “Buckaroo Banzai” and “Pirates of the Caribbean.”

Relying on radiocarbon analysis of pollen found in salt cores, the study, published Friday in the journal Quaternary Research, concludes the salt began accumulating between 5,400 and 3,500 years ago, demonstrating how this geological feature is not a permanent fixture on the landscape.

“This now gives us a record of how the Bonneville Salt Flats landscape responds to environmental change. Originally, we thought this salt had formed here right after Lake Bonneville and it was a static landscape in the past 10,000 years,” said the study’s lead author, Jeremiah Bernau, a former U graduate student in geology. “This data shows us that that’s not the case, that during a very dry period in the past 10,000 years, we actually saw a lot of erosion and then the accumulation of gypsum sand. And as the climate was becoming cooler and wetter, then the salt began to accumulate.”

Read the full story by Brian Maffly in @The U

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Spectrum 2020

Nuclear Medicine, PER Programs, and NSF grant for Quantum Idea Incubator.

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Discover 2019

Science Research Initiative, College Rankings, Commutative Algebra, and more.

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Spectrum 2019

Nuclear Medicine, PER Programs, and NSF grant for Quantum Idea Incubator.

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Notebook 2019

The New Faces of Utah Science, Churchill Scholars, and Convocation 2019.

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Catalyst 2019

Endowed Chairs of Chemistry, Curie Club, and alumnus: Victor Cee.

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Our DNA 2019

Ants of the World, CRISPR Scissors, and Alumni Profile - Nikhil Bhayani.

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Catalyst 2019

Methane-Eating Bacteria, Distinguished Alumni, Student and Alumni profiles.

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Spectrum 2019

Featured: Molecular Motors, Churchill Scholar, Dark Matter, and Black Holes.

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Our DNA 2019

Featured: The Startup Life, Monica Gandhi, Genomic Conflicts, and alumna Jeanne Novak.

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AfterMath 2018

Featured: A Love for Puzzles, Math & Neuroscience, Number Theory, and AMS Fellows.

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Discover 2018

The 2018 Research Report for the College of Science.

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Spectrum 2018

Featured: Dark Matter, Spintronics, Gamma Rays and Improving Physics Teaching.

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Catalyst 2018

Featured: Ming Hammond, Jack & Peg Simons Endowed Professors, Martha Hughes Cannon.

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New Tyrannosaurus Species

Scientists Conclude New Mexico Fossil Is New Tyrannosaurus Species


 

 

Scientists reassessing a partial skull first unearthed in 1983 in southeastern New Mexico have concluded that the fossil represents a new species of Tyrannosaurus - the fearsome apex predator from western North America at the twilight of the dinosaur age - that predated the fabulously famous T. rex.

^ Mark Loewen. ^^ Banner image above: An artist's reconstruction of the newly identified dinosaur species Tyrannosaurus mcraeensis, based on a partial skull fossil collected in New Mexico, U.S. Sergei Krasinski/Handout via REUTERS

Subtle differences from Tyrannosaurus rex observed in the skull merit recognizing the dinosaur as a separate species called Tyrannosaurus mcraeensis that lived several million years before T. rex and was comparable in size, the researchers said on Thursday. The skull previously was identified as a T. rex.

Other researchers expressed doubt that it represents a new Tyrannosaurus species, saying differences between it and other T. rex skulls were unremarkable and the study's conclusion that the fossil dated to 71-73 million years ago was problematic.

T. rex has been the sole species of the genus Tyrannosaurus recognized since the dinosaur was first described in 1905. A genus is a broader grouping of related organisms than a species. T. rex fossils date to the couple million years before an asteroid struck Earth 66 million years ago, dooming the dinosaurs.

The first parts of the New Mexico skull were found near the base of Kettle Top Butte in 1983, with more later discovered.

Paleontologist Anthony Fiorillo, executive director of the New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science and one of the authors of the study published in the journal Scientific Reports, said about 25% of the skull has been collected. Most of the braincase and the upper jaws are missing.

"Compared to T. rex, the lower jaw is shallower and more curved towards the back. The blunt hornlets above the eyes are lower than in T. rex," said paleontologist Nick Longrich of the University of Bath in England, another of the researchers.

"It's the nature of species that the differences tend to be subtle. The key thing is they're consistent. We looked at lots of different T. rex, and our animal was consistently different from every known T. rex, in every bone," Longrich added.

Vertebrate paleontologist Mark Loewen, associate professor lecturer, Department of Geology and Geophysics, University of Utah is a co-author of the paper and Resident Research Associate at the Natural History Museum of Utah.

Read the entire story by Will Dunham (Reuters) in USA Today.

Cosmic Ray Learning in Public Schools

Cosmic Ray Learning in Public Schools

A cohort of teens at the Salt Lake Center for Science Education (SLCSE) is learning the principles of physics and computer programming by building detectors for cosmic rays.

January 29, 2024

 

^ Professor of physics, Tino Nyawelo coaches a student. ^^ Banner photo above: Ricardo Gonzalez, REFUGES Afterschool Program Coordinator staging an orientation for the cosmic ray program at SLCSE. Credit: Todd Anderson

The pilot program is led by U faculty member Tino Nyawelo, one of three recipients of the 2023 Spirit of Salam Award given annually on the birthday of the famed theoretical physicist from Punjab, Pakistan, Abdus Salam.

The program is an extension of the larger successful REFUGES initiative, designed to support refugee students entering Utah’s public school system, a transition that can often be difficult due to the age-based placement of schools. “[The students] couldn't succeed in this [Utah public] school system because they spent years in refugee camps without any education,” says Nyawelo. “Since we can't change the school system, we have to fill-in by providing additional support.” In addition to hands-on experience with science, the students are also provided with resources for personal health and wellness, college and career readiness and assistance applying for scholarships. Several students from the last cohort have received full-ride scholarships.

Nyawelo emphasizes the importance of this component: “For [students] to succeed, you need to address the costs of education. That's why we have college and career readiness, and we have provided scholarships. They can be smart and all those kinds of things, but if you don't support them and don't provide all those resources, they may not be able to afford to come [to the U], for example.”

Beyond the unique opportunity to engage with real physics, ensuring a viable future path for its participants is one of the program’s vital elements. 

Detectors for Cosmic Ray Science

SLCSE student doing calculations related to the cosmic ray outreach project.

The detector technology is adapted from HiSPARC (High School Project on Astrophysics Research with Cosmics), a program co-founded by physicists Bob van Eijk and Nyawelo’s former advisor Jan-Willem van Holten, a theoretical physicist at Nikhef (the Dutch National Institute for Subatomic Physics) with whom Nyawelo continues to collaborate to this day. Van Holten and a number of researchers who worked on the HiSPARC project have flown to Utah several times to help Nyawelo adapt the program in its new digs in the Mountain West. “I still have a big connection with the Netherlands,” says Nyawelo. “Van Holten, van Eijk, and their colleagues at Nikhef have donated a lot of the equipment to work and build cosmic ray detectors with high school students here in Utah, and they handed me the project that they started more than 20 years ago.”

After the detectors are installed at SLCSE and begin collecting data, there is a continual opportunity for the students to learn coding skills and data analysis as part of their physics and astronomy curriculum. The database is an international one, with data dumps coming in from all over the world, in real-time. The program is designed to scale up to other high schools throughout the state so that students can have hands-on experience collecting and analyzing data about cosmic rays globally. “It’s been an exciting project that can serve as a model for other places that want to support students from these backgrounds to succeed in STEM in higher education, just like I did while attending the ICTP [Abdus Salam International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Italy] and in the Netherlands.” 

Generous support for the pilot program at SLCSE was provided by Jeff and Pauline Unruh through the Unruh Family Foundation. "Our foundation focuses on STEM disciplines and inspiring young minds. [This] is a perfect example. We're proud to support the next generation of scientists," says Jeff. "With his commendable dedication to this program, Nyawelo has ensured that these students will walk away not just with extensive hands-on experience in STEM, but also with the tools to succeed in their lives beyond the classroom, fostering a brighter and more accessible future for science." 

By Julia St. Andre