Friday, December 25, 2009

Merry Christmas!

And Happy Holidays too, because Christmas ain't the only holiday. (According to Straight No Chaser's "Christmas Can-Can", anyway!) Hope everyone is enjoying good food, friends and family, and staying safe - especially with all this crazy weather!

(This and a bunch of other cool backgrounds come from VladStudio. There are lots of Christmas ones, but this will always be my favorite!)

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

2 Year Blogiversary

Two years already! (It's a good thing Callan started his blog up before I did, because otherwise I would completely forget to do this. Hope you're having fun in Patagonia, Callan!)

Things have changed quite a bit for me since I started this blog two years ago. I finished working at my first real job, started graduate school in a new state, got my first apartment, earned a great fellowship, visited active volcanoes in three countries, been invited to be on a GSA committee, started freelance writing, and adopted a new kitty. (Surprise! I thought I'd avoid putting a bunch of kitty photos up, but maybe just one or two at the end of the post...) It's been a very exciting time. Sometimes - in fact, often - stressful, sometimes crazy, but always interesting. (Isn't there some sort of curse to that effect? May you live in interesting times!)

The past year has been a big part of that. So far...
  • I earned an NSF Graduate Fellowship, and because it guarantees three years of funding, I'm almost finished switching from a masters to a PhD. This was something I certainly hadn't expected, but I'm happy with it, since after my first semester of grad school was over I knew I didn't want to stop work with a masters. It's just so fun! And I have great teachers at Buffalo - I've learned so much in the past year, and I'm really lucky to have found such a good fit in my graduate school. (And hey, I can't help but be excited about the fellowship, since it takes a lot of stress away. TAing and taking classes and trying to research all at the same time was rough.)
  • I went to Guatemala and Italy, and got to see volcanoes erupting in both countries. Guatemala was a real eye-opener for me - not just because Santiaguito is a really cool (and unique) volcanic dome, but because I'd never visited a third-world country before. Aside from the food poisoning, it was a fascinating experience, and it really drove home that I want to study volcanoes so I can help people as well as for the sake of research. I also felt my first big earthquake there! Italy was amazing, naturally, and I don't think I'll ever find another place that combines history, food and volcanoes in such a fun way. I hit a few rough patches on that trip too, but I'm glad I had the experience. 
  • I gave my first talk at a professional conference. This was, frankly, petrifying, at least before I gave the thing. First talk of the session, 8 in the morning, in front of a whole room full of geologists who'd been working in my field area for decades? Talk about nerve-wracking! But the talk went well, I didn't run over my time, I managed to answer questions without sounding like an idiot, and no one got angry or argumentative when I gave conclusions that differed with their older studies. I know this won't always be the case, but at least I had a chance to ease myself into giving talks in a professional setting without being totally traumatized. 
  • My volcano articles on started getting pretty popular! In fact, one of the professors at UB who assigned an extra credit paper about volcanoes said that my articles were the second most popular reference in her 300-person intro class. She even congratulated me on it, which was neat. I'm glad that they're proving useful (and that people think they make good references for geology students).  And I'm getting a lot of good writing practice in at the same time...
As I said, some big changes and great experiences. Hopefully there are a lot more to come! And now, because I promised, here's Sabrina, the newest member of my family, busily absorbing volcanology along with me:

Well, maybe not absorbing. But the Encyclopedia of Volcanology seems to make a good blanket, too!

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Talk about a white Christmas!

So in case you hadn't heard, the East Coast got hit with a lot of snow yesterday. I managed to get back to Virginia from Buffalo pretty early on Friday, so luckily I didn't get stuck in the mess. But I can't ever remember seeing this much snow in the DC area before! And especially not all at was pretty crazy to be shoveling the driveway and have an inch of snow fall to cover what I'd just shoveled in less than 15 minutes. 

Here's what it looked like at noon on Saturday:

Well, there used to be something growing in those planters...

It was pretty neat how much snow piled up on the fences.

Here's what our street looked like this afternoon. We actually got plowed pretty early on, but we haven't seen much traffic lately. Everyone's pretty much staying home, which is a good idea anyway.

I had to climb over our fence to get into the backyard, since our back porch is snowed in and the gate wouldn't open. I landed in snow to my knees.

Of course, I had to make a snow angel. I plan to make a snow volcano tomorrow.

Not quite deep enough for tunneling!

Crazy weather. (And I just found out that they closed all the schools in the county for the rest of the week. My mom is pretty surprised, but at least she gets a long winter vacation!) And since the DC area doesn't deal with snow well, I'm guessing we won't have really dug out until after Christmas. 

Saturday, December 12, 2009

A year of traveling...and not traveling

I saw this over at Sciencewomen, and I thought it would be a good way to recap what I've done this year. 

January: NOVA & Washington D.C.

February: Stayed in Buffalo...

March: Guatemala!!

April: Florida

May: Utah, Toronto

June: Italy, Utah again

July: More Utah!

August: More Virginia

September: Niagara Falls

October: Portland

November: Ellicottville & Little Rock City, NY

December: Almost home again...

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Old books and allergies

Alas! Coursework strikes again, in the form of a rather intensive thesis proposal rewriting process, numerous projects on advanced topics in volcanology, and exams pretty much every week since September. (Perhaps an indication that I should quit taking classes for a bit, no matter how interesting I find them...) I feel bad for not posting much in the past couple of weeks, but blogging has to come after school obligations.

This topic popped into my head after I got fed up with my messy apartment and went on a cleaning and organizing spree, during which I probably shifted a few tens of pounds of books back to their shelves. A lot of my books are textbooks I've used in classes, or popular-science type volcanology books, but I've also got a small collection of older books about geology. One thing that I love to do is browse through the older journals and textbooks in the geology section of our library, and collect older texts that I find at book sales or used book shops. These are probably bad habits on my part, since I'm quite allergic to some sort of book mold, and I inevitably end up with itchy eyes and a nasty headache afterward.

But I can't quit! It's really fascinating to me to pick up an introductory geology text from, say, the pre-Wegener era, and see the old explanations for tectonic processes, or go even further back and find a 19th-century description of a field area that's as much a travelogue as a geologic history. Old maps are just as cool; one thing that I need to do sometime this winter is make my way down to the Buffalo central library and go see their copy of the William Smith 1815 geologic map of Great Britain.

My favorite discovery, though, was in the geology library at my alma mater. I was trying to see what the oldest book in our collection was, and came across a 19th century intro geology text. There were a lot of scribbled notes in the margins - and by scribbled I mean "more elegant cursive than I will ever achieve" - but one of them wasn't about geology. It read something like, "February 24, 1842...Rained all day."

This just cracked me up. Although it's not terribly likely that the book was ever used by a geologist at William & Mary back in the 19th century, that is just the sort of comment that I'd expect a bored student to write in the margins if they were sitting around Williamsburg in February, where it does, quite often, rain all day. Some long-dead student got bored with reading, just like I do sometimes...It was a neat way to connect with the past, and I'm always on the lookout for "new" old things, even if they make me sneeze.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Flatirons ≠ pyramids, but they're still cool

I've noticed a few stories recently about Sam Osmanagich, a Bosnian archaeology enthusiast who claims to have discovered several 12,000-year-old 'pyramids' in the Balkans. The whole 'pyramid' saga mainly concerns a case of mistaken identity - the pyramids are just hills - and Indiana-Jones-style archaeology (by which I mean not very methodical, scientific or objective) on Osmanagich's part, and you can read more about it at the links below:

National Geographic:
Pyramid in Bosnia - Huge Hoax or Colossal Find?

Smithsonian Magazine: The Mystery of Bosnia's Ancient Pyramids

They're really not hoaxes or mysteries, though - just badly misidentified. I minored in archaeology in college, and it really makes me cringe to see something so pseudo-scientific be accepted by so many people, even becoming a point of national pride in Bosnia. Archaeology has become a very scientific process, and properly-conducted archaeological digs are just as methodical as anything we do as geologists. Digging holes in a hillside, finding layered sandstones and conglomerates and then declaring that they're poured concrete mostly because they look like concrete is really crappy science. (There are also a lot of archaeologists who are unhappy about the whole situation because the 'pyramid' digs could potentially destroy a lot of genuine archaeological sites, which that area of the Balkans apparently has in abundance.)

Anyway, the situation is a great big mess. But what I found really interesting in the Smithsonian article was the (much more plausible) geologic explanation for the pyramids. Here's what the article says:
Visoko lies near the southern end of a valley that runs from Sarajevo to Zenica. The valley has been quarried for centuries and its geological history is well understood. It was formed some ten million years ago as the mountains of Central Bosnia were pushing skyward and was soon flooded, forming a lake 40 miles long. As the mountains continued to rise over the next few million years, sediments washed into the lake and settled on the bottom in layers. If you dig in the valley today, you can expect to find alternating layers of various thickness, from gossamer-thin clay sediments (deposited in quiet times) to plates of sandstones or thick layers of conglomerates (sedimentary rocks deposited when raging rivers dumped heavy debris into the lake). Subsequent tectonic activity buckled sections of lakebed, creating angular hills, and shattered rock layers, leaving fractured plates of sandstone and chunky blocks of conglomerate. 
In early 2006 Osmanagich asked a team of geologists from the nearby University of Tuzla to analyze core samples at Visocica. They found that his pyramid was composed of the same matter as other mountains in the area: alternating layers of conglomerate, clay and sandstone.
Nonetheless, Osmanagich put scores of laborers to work digging on the hills. It was just as the geologists had predicted: the excavations revealed layers of fractured conglomerate at Visocica, while those at Pljesevica uncovered cracked sandstone plates separated by layers of silt and clay. "What he's found isn't even unusual or spectacular from the geological point of view," says geologist Robert Schoch of Boston University, who spent ten days at Visoko that summer. "It's completely straightforward and mundane." 

"The landform [Osmanagich] is calling a pyramid is actually quite common," agrees Paul Heinrich, an archaeological geologist at Louisiana State University. "They're called ‘flatirons' in the United States and you see a lot of them out West." He adds that there are "hundreds around the world," including the "Russian Twin Pyramids" in Vladivostok. [From pages 2-3 of the article]
Well, if you're trying to draw attention to the fact that someone's mistaking a geological formation for a man-made structure, I guess saying it isn't "unusual or spectacular from the geological point of view" is a good way to do it. But I think that flatirons are still pretty neat, even if they're made out of conglomerate, which as a volcanologist I will have to admit is not on my 'most exciting rock' list.

I've seen a few good examples of flatirons in my time out West, and I'm always impressed by the forces it took to move all that rock around. Here are some novaculite flatirons from the Big Bend, Texas region:

A great Michael Collier photo of the flatirons at Waterpocket Fold in Utah, which is part of Capitol Reef National Park:

Copyright (C) Michael Collier; hosted on the AGI Earth Science World Image Bank

(Michael Collier is an amazing photographer and a great person; I was lucky enough to meet him while I was working at AGI. I dare you not to buy a book of his photos once you've seen a few.)

And probably the most famous US flatirons, the Flatiron range just outside of Boulder, Colorado:

From Wikipedia

It's not hard to see how one of these things could get covered over with soil and vegetation and look like it was man-made. But pure observation that isn't backed up by data will give you bad results every time, and flat, triangular rock formations do not a pyramid make. It's really too bad that so many people in Bosnia are getting excited about their flatirons because they think they're remnants of an ancient civilization, and not because they're a neat geological formation that tells us about the landscape evolution of that part of the Balkans. But we can't all be geologists, I guess...

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Little Rock City

Long time, no writing! I hate dropping the ball, but schoolwork has to come first. Anyway, I spent part of this weekend exploring the geology of Western New York - specifically, south of Buffalo in Cattaraugus County.

Cattaraugus County moves away from the carbonate sequences that you see around Buffalo and into Late Devonian sandstones and shales. On the map to the left, they're shown in a sort of pistachio green, while the limestones that I live on are in dark green. (You can find a copy of this map on the UB Library's map collection website - the resolution isn't great, but it's a pretty general map to begin with.)

The weekend was a combination geology and beer-and-wine-tasting trip, but Saturday was a lovely day for hiking, so we went for a visit to Rock City State Forest (roughly near the red arrow on the map). Cattaraugus County has a number of "rock cities" - places where the Salamanca conglomerate caps hills and breaks up into large blocks along joints. According to a K/H Geology Field Guide series book on Upstate New York, "where the rock cites occur, a conglomerate ledge forms a level, ribbon-like outcrop that follows the contour of the hill for a way and then seems to just fade out."

The rock cities are really fun, and look to be prime bouldering locations; the cracks between the blocks are anywhere from inches to feet wide, so there are lots of alleys and cracks to explore.

The conglomerate is really cool; it has some beautiful cross-bedding, normal and reverse grading sequences, and imbrication in the flat pebbles that make up the largest clasts. The pebbles are mostly white quartz or quartzite, but every so often there are little bits of shale.

I'm too out of practice to be bouldering without a spotter and the right shoes, but the crack climbing was just fine for some of the folks on the trip...

The conglomerate retains water very well - I guess you could consider the blocks "perched aquifers". There are little dripping springs all over the sides of the blocks, and the water tends to pool at the bases. It makes for muddy hiking, but somebody went to the trouble of putting down wooden walkways in some spots.

Luckily, it was a nice day for hiking; it's all too easy to get so caught up in the research part of geology that you forget to go out into the field. (The crazy weather up here right now also helped; we should probably be getting snow at this point, but it was warm enough yesterday to go outside in short sleeves! I'm betting this means we're going to get dumped on this winter.)

I'd recommend a visit to anyone who's in the WNY area; this is a small but probably underappreciated park that many people would probably overlook in favor of the larger parks (or the ski areas, which I'm sure are lovely when they have some snow...)

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Accretionary Wedge #21: Earth Science Outreach

Happy Halloween! I hope you all are having a fun day of candy-and-costume-filled spookiness. And speaking of playing different roles, Earth scientists wear one hat in particular that's very important: the Outreach Hat!

That's why the subject of this month's Accretionary Wedge was Earth Science Outreach. This October has been a big month for Earth science: we've had Earth Science Week (a yearly event), a national Geological Society of America meeting in Portland, OR, and a DonorsChoose challenge on ScienceBlogs (Geobloggers Giving Kids the Earth), sponsored by geobloggers Kim Hannula, Anne Jefferson, and Erik Klemetti.

But individual Earth scientists do just as much to show others why our work is important. Read on to find out what!

To start with something I've already mentioned, we have Earth Science Week, a campaign for Earth science awareness and education that's been run by the American Geological Institute for more than a decade now. Silver Fox of Looking For Detachment wrote about some Earth Science Week activities in Nevada this year, and has plans to get even more involved next year. I've had some experience with Earth Science Week myself - before I started grad school, I worked for AGI for a year as their Outreach and Education Assistant. Part of my job was to help run the Earth Science Week program, so I'll admit I'm a bit of a biased advocate. But one of my favorite parts of the job was getting to visit classrooms and talk about what it's like to be a geologist; the photo at left is from one of those visits to my old elementary school in Virginia, where I'm trying to convince the students that scientists spend a lot of time writing. (I hope they believed me!)

Geobloggers spend time in (and out) of other people's schools as well as their own. Dr. Ian Stimpson (AKA Hypocentre) at Hypo-theses has written a lot about his Seismology for Schools project in the UK, which is is "coordinated by the British Geological Survey (BGS) and involves the donation of seismometers to schools to help promote geology and geophysics in the classroom". This is a great way to get students (and their teachers) directly involved in geoscience research - and who doesn't like to jump up and down next to a seismometer once in a while? (The US has a similar program run through Incorporated Research Institutions for Seismology [IRIS]). Garry Hayes of Geotripper writes about his own experiences with a program at Modesto Junior College called Science Educational Encounters for Kids, where local fifth graders visit the campus every Friday to get "an experience in science. Budget cuts in school systems across the country have made it difficult for teachers to give their students even a basic introduction to the sciences, and volunteering is a great way to make sure that students don't go through school without the tools to understand their world. Florian Jenn of EffJot has posted about a similar program being run by the Brandenburg Technological University in Germany, where the Environmental Geology department holds practical courses for secondary school students. FJ's students have done some projects in environmental geochemistry and hydrology - have a look!

Earth science outreach happens outside of a school setting as well, whether it's through a visit to a museum, field trips, short courses, or teaching others to teach geoscience. Pascal of Research at a snail's pace spent time trying to make the University of Wisconsin Geology Museum - and specifically its Burgess Shale exhibit - a little easier to visualize. (A good thing, since most of them were so hard to figure out that they got stuck in a genus called Hallucigenia!) Over at Geology Happens, we get to hear about opportunities for K-12 teachers and students to explore the Colorado Plateau. Since the Colorado Plateau was where I had my first real introduction to field work, I totally agree with the closing comment in that post: "You can't beat walking the mountains with a bunch of kids and just let the rocks tell their story." Lockwood of Outside The Interzone agrees - he's been leading field trips for years! I've heard over and over that the way many people get hooked on the Earth sciences is through field trips - there's just nothing to beat the sensory and intellectual experience you get in the field.

Finally, it's important to remember that Earth science outreach isn't just about showing people how wonderful the geosciences are - it's about providing opportunities to those who wouldn't necessarily have them. There are schools all over this country (and others) where teachers are incredibly dedicated to their students' education, but just don't have the means to teach them about science. Good tools aren't cheap, as anyone who's ever swung a rock hammer will know. That's why the ScienceBlogs Donors Choose Challenge was such a hot topic this month. Kim Hannula of All of My Faults Are Stress Related was part of the team who sponsored a challenge for geobloggers and their readers, with the goal of funding geoscience-related projects for classrooms in need. And it was a resounding success! Kim's post says it all: "October's over tomorrow, and the geobloggers' challenge has raised more money than any other challenge here at Science Blogs. $8,288. 40 donors. 1218 students reached. Last week, I had to go searching for new geoscience-related projects to support, because so many of the original projects had already been completely funded." Bravo, geobloggers! And remember, just because the ScienceBlogs Challenge is over doesn't mean the projects still don't need funding - go check out the geobloggers page and see who still needs help!

Thanks for everyone who contributed to this month's Accretionary Wedge - and thank you again for all the Earth science outreach you do, no matter how you do it! (Even through blogging...) As always, if you've got a late contribution or I've missed anything, leave a link and I'll add you on.

There's still no one hosting the Wedge for November, so if you have an idea, leave a comment at Who's hosting the next Accretionary Wedge? (and step up and volunteer some more, if you feel like it!)

Friday, October 30, 2009

Last call for Accretionary Wedge entries....

The Headless Horseman wants you to know that posting* is very important.

*Yes, I did just make a horseback riding joke. I am a geek in many ways. Mwahahaha!

Monday, October 26, 2009

The "Breached Dam Overlook" Field Trip at GSA: perspectives from a participant

Apparently my post on the Steve Austin field trip at GSA caught the attention of quite a few people, although it was already an issue that had come to the attention of the GSA field trip organizers. I chose not to go on the trip myself (for monetary and scheduling reasons, mostly) but have heard from one geoblogger who did (Pascal of Research at a Snail's Pace). He has kindly allowed me to repost his thoughts and observations on the trip, and I've included them below. He has also written several additional posts on the subject, with some thoughts on some interesting talks and posters that popped up at the meeting; you can read the whole collection here:

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3
Part 4
Part 5

And now, for those of you who wanted to see how the field trip actually turned out, on to the trip summary:


"First, let me talk about what this post is not:
It is not a discussion of Dr. Steven Austin's character as a person. In fact, I found him to be very cheerful and enthusiastic despite the poor weather. The same could be said of all the people on the trip; people were generally quite upbeat and positive even if our boots still have not dried out completely.

"It is not a discussion/rant about religion - I find the parts of religious teachings that say we should be nicer to each other rather spiffy. There are plenty of other places to attempt some kind of cost/benefit analysis of belief/non-belief in any particular deity.

"My intention with this post is to describe the trip in terms of how it was laid out, where we went, what we saw, and what was said by the trip leaders as it pertained to the field trip. I will save posts related to implications of the trip and discussion of some of the abstracts submitted by other authors who were on the trip for the future."

The Trip

"We boarded the bus at the convention center and started up I-5 towards MSH. Along the way, Steven described the general purpose for the trip and handed out a reprint of the Guidebook [published as part of the GSA meeting field trip guidebook - more on this later]. It appeared that at least half of the people on the trip were familiar with the leader or co-leaders [I am still not sure how many actual "co-leaders" there were - at least four]. One of my friends from grad school was also on the trip, but I did not know any one else aside from the background research I had done to familiarize myself with the writings of those involved in planning the trip.

"While we were making our way north, Steven described scuba diving in Spirit Lake, some of the work he had done for his dissertation at Penn State, and mentioned several times how the people attending this trip could learn from it and lead their own tours in the future. He described the eruption as a seven or eight step sequence of events from initial quake and landslide, to steam explosion and ashfall, finally ending with the breach of the new spirit lake and rapid outlet of the Toutle River once it overtopped the debris damming the valley two years later. A great deal of emphasis was put on the time of each event and the quantity of material removed from the mountain and depth of erosion from the Toutle River. Oddly, he described the basal movement of the mountain side as "laminar flow."

"He spent some time describing "long-runout landslides" and the various mechanisms by which they can travel [there was nothing that seemed obviously wrong with his summary of primary concepts - although I have not double checked his reference yet]. He also spent some time describing hyperconcentrated mudflows along the Cowlitz River, which he described as turbulent, making bedforms. Traditional mudflows, he stated, had laminar flow and left massive, lacking bedforms/structures [which was confusing, since turbulence is largely a function of flow thickness, velocity, and bed interference, and even laminar flow can form sedimentary structures].

"He made some comment about these landforms being a result of "self-organized criticality," but I'm still not sure to what he was exactly referring [the eruption, the landslide, the breaching of the dammed material?] We got out at JRO to spend some time in the center to look at the displays and look at the [really cool] topographic model of the area with fiber optic lights to show the extent and pattern of eruptive events on the mountain. [I should really talk about JRO and MSH itself in a separate post].

"The group was split into groups of four [to help ease congestion on the trail and stops]. We then proceeded to wind our way down Truman Trail and into the valley. That's when it started to rain. Not a sprinkle or even a simple cloudburst, but sideways and nonstop for about four hours. This driving rain forced the trip leaders to postpone the first stop (on the ridge) to the return trip, so we continued on our trip. Down into the debris field, with Spirit Lake visible to the East, and the base of MSH occasionally visible. However, we didn't have much opportunity to gaze at the vista, since it was raining so hard [very few photos, either, since I wanted to keep my lenses dry for a while].

"We continued down the trail, eventually reaching the bottom of the valley, where we veered off the trail and toward the new channel canyon. Steven had obtained an off-trail permit for our group, and we plodded through the rain-soaked clay, ash, and volcanic rock debris towards the overlook. I kept my hood over my face to try and keep the rain from draining down the inside of my jacket. By this time my pants, boots, and socks had become completely saturated. Because I was moving, I wasn't feeling cold, however, and the rest of the group also appeared to take the weather in stride.

"Our arrival at the "breached-dam overlook" allowed us to see some of the more prominent erosional features of the Toutle River Valley. Here Steven picked up his narration, describing the landforms as a result of specific processes that had occurred at specific "moments" in time [my wording].

"After his description of the various landforms [basically: 1) debris hummocks, 2) ash-fall, and 3) erosional valleys], Steven mentioned again, that this landscape was a result of "self-organized criticality" [his wording]. There were some questions and comments from the attendees regarding past volcanic events and landscape processes, even a statement about something that happened "100 million years ago" to which Steven did not react or criticize. But then he left us with some oddly phrased question about how much of this landscape was a result of "catastrophic" change versus "gradual" change. To which another person [I do not know if they were co-leading or attending] added that "both types have occurred. I was still trying to parse his catastrophism comments, so I only asked one question about this particular landscape in the future: "what would you expect to see in this landscape in the distant future?" I don't think he quite understood what I was asking, but he did address the fact that this particular landscape was anthropogenically altered, therefore some changes would not take place [which was entirely correct]. But as a summary, his statement was "more erosion." Nothing about changes in stream power, or sediment load, or base-level fluctuations. Just "erosion."

"Because of the rain, his stop was likely cut short. As a parting comment about future eruptions, he made some comment about a similar 1980-style event unlikely [I'm not sure if he was talking about never again, or just in the relatively short-term]. But he made some passing comment about eruptions occurring as a result of the interaction between water, crystallization of magmas [my impression was he thought crystallization was near-instantaneous], and "self-organized criticality" allowing for this pressure to be released [his wording again]. I didn't have a chance to follow-up on that and ask him what he meant, since everyone had started to hike back to the ridge [I still need to do that].

"When we got up towards the ridge, the rain let up and I concentrated on taking photographs. Most of the group had started to spread out, such that I only saw the same four or five people at any given time. Arriving back at JRO, the overlook stop had apparently been cancelled, so I stood on the observation deck and took lots and lots of pictures.

"The return trip to the Convention Center was unremarkable, except that when we got off the bus, they handed a nice 60" wide panoramic photo of MSH to each of the attendees [this was pretty cool]."


"Ultimately, the trip was not as embarrassing or intellectually painful as I had feared. If a GSA member had signed up for the trip, they may not have realized that the trip leader was a YEC [my grad school friend didn't know about Steve Austin until I mentioned something on the bus when we left for MSH]. The people sympathetic to his views were obviously happy. I took away some nice photos and memories of the volcano itself along with a clearer picture of what these YEC-ers are up to and what they are thinking.

"I want to thank Steven Austin and his colleagues for taking the time and effort to organize the trip. I have some concerns, but these are more appropriate for a letter to the GSA Field Trip Committee Chairperson.

"I also want to commend GSA for their decision. It wasn't a tough one, and understandably, there was a great deal of internal discussion related to the trip and whether to allow it. As written, the description of the trip makes no statements regarding a "Young Earth" or other sentiments anathema to the GSA mission. In addition, to deny a proposal on the "possibility" of something coming up is a big step down the slippery slope of guilt by association.

"Yes, the YEC crowd will put this as a shining feather in their caps [ironic, since they claim all of our work is wrong yet they view interaction with us as "proof" that their ideas have merit]. But, there are always unintended consequences. Thanks to the hard work of Jessica at Magma Cum Laude, I was aware of the situation prior to the event, and I've been able to share my experiences with sufficient prior knowledge to report on the event. I also have gained valuable insight into the YEC community, and a new lesson plan to teach about deep time - using Austin's work to show why it's completely wrong."
To finish up, here are a few thoughts from Pascal's last post about why using social networking for the sake of science can be really beneficial:
"This brings up an important point about social networks. The conference at GSA held a special session on the use of social networks in teaching and research. I think the use of social networking tools such as blogs, tweets, and facebooks is vital to help make the geologic community aware of what's going on. Without it, I would not have been able to be aware of the nature of the field trip: both in its implications, but also in terms of its "science" content. In addition, I might not have pursued the background research and stumbled upon these abstracts. The activities of the young-Earth community clearly are part of a larger strategy to gain "scientific merit" for their views (this is related to the "Wedge" strategy as described by the Institute for Creation Research). Without social networking, this behavior might not have been discovered until later - at a point where response and criticism would be more complicated.

"As geologists, we ignore people like Steve Austin, John Witmore, and Timothy Clarey at our peril. However, our response must be both thorough and united. Social networking can provide the first line of notification. I want to thank Jessica at "Magma Cum Laude" for her first note: without it, I - and others - would have been duped."

Saturday, October 24, 2009

GSA Update #3

I always head to GSA with good intentions (i.e., actually writing about things the day they happen), but I usually end up joining the ranks of those catching up with their writing instead. (There's nothing wrong with this, since I'm not getting paid to write on a schedule or anything, but it annoys me when I do it.)

Tuesday at GSA was another great chance to see talks; lots of discussion about volcano hydrothermal systems, degassing, hazards, and risk communication. In addition, I (and Jim Lehane from Dino Jim's Musings) were asked to be on a the eGSA ad hoc committee! We had a really interesting discussion about how GSA communicates with its members online, and ways that we can incorporate new technology to help GSA keep up with current online trends (such as geoblogging). Some exciting topics came up, including the possibility of a GSA blog, an improved GSA Connection newsletter and maybe even a meeting-oriented Iphone app.

Anyway, on to a few talk summaries:
  • Conduit convection vs. deep degassing at open vent volcanoes: melt inclusion evidence from Popocatepetl Volcano, Mexico by Paul Wallace. In this study, melt inclusions were found to indicate variable degassing at different depths in a volcanic system; CO2/SO2 ratios of volatiles dissolved in the inclusions were used to determine the pressure and depth of exsolution. The CO2/SO2 relationship is something that I was taught about in a volcanology field course I took in Hawaii; CO2 degassing occurs at depth and SO2 degassing when the magma reaches a more shallow location, and increasing amounts of SO2 are often taken to indicate a likely eruption (or at least magma moving into a shallow part of a volcanic conduit).
  • Back off: We're scientists! Myth vs. reality and how to communicate risk related to natural hazards by Jeff Rubin. Jeff was one of the teachers of the short course I took on Sunday, and this talk was a great summary of the important points that came up during the discussions he led. One of the biggest problems with mitigating natural hazards is the assumptions that people in charge make about how non-scientists and non-officials will behave - especially thinking that they will panic. In reality, panic is extremely rare and in many cases precious resources and personnel are wasted on trying to prevent it. What folks in charge should be concentrating on is communicating clearly and honestly about hazards, and maintaining credibility (by not withholding information unnecessarily, or refusing to admit a lack of certainty, for example).
  • The preacher vs. the volcanologist: Origin of the word "pyroduct" by Jack Lockwood. This was one of the history of geology talks, and it was a great tale about Reverend Titus Coan, who went to Hawaii in the 1850s to help spread Christianity to the natives and in the process made some important observations about volcanoes, and the more famous James Dana (of Dana's Mineralogy), with whom he corresponded. Coan's letters to Dana about eruptions at Mauna Loa were the earliest field descriptions of activity at that volcano, and they caused a long-standing argument between the two about the existence of lava tubes. In short, Coan described them and Dana (who had not been to the field and actually looked at them) republished his work but denied that lava tubes (or "pyroducts", as Coan called them) existed. (Only after Coan's death did Dana even partially relent, in fact.) Dr. Lockwood left us with a moral to the story: Good field observations trump office speculations every time!
  • Blogs as a resource and social support network for women geoscientists by Kim Hannula (of All of My Faults Are Stress Related). I was really looking forward to this talk, because it presented the results of one of the surveys that's been bouncing around the geoblogosphere in the past months. The point of the survey was to find out why women read (and write) geoblogs, and the results were pretty interesting: women geoscientists in academia read and write blogs to make their experiences feel more normal, and to get advice and connect with role models. This wasn't so much the case for geoscientists in industry, and Kim has promised some further research on why the responses were different. You can read her summary here - as one of the PIs of the study, she's better at summarizing it than I am!
In the course of the meeting, I also helped out at UB's recruitment table, and it was really nice to get to meet prospective grad students and try to get them excited about grad school. It wasn't just an opportunity to talk about how great UB's volcanology group is (although I definitely did), but also a chance to answer questions about grad school in general, which is really valuable for incoming students. There are a lot of things that I found out by trial and error, and if I can make it easier for someone else, I'm all for it. There was a great turnout (and not just for the swag), and I'm looking forward to see who comes to visit in the next few months.

And on Wednesday, I rested....just kidding. On Wednesday, noticing a lack of volcanology-related sessions, I decided to tromp around Portland for a bit. Sadly, it was a pretty soggy morning, and most stores didn't open until 10 (which probably kept me from spending money on things I'd have to stuff into my already-full bags), but I enjoyed the chance to see a bit of the city. I'll have to go back and visit some volcanoes, because I didn't see any in the whole time I was there. Darn!

All in all, a great meeting - it's not often that there are talks on volcanology every day, and I felt like I learned a lot and made some good connections. (And I couldn't beat the geobloggers meetup for a good time!)

Accretionary Wedge #21 - Deadline extended!

In recognition of the fact that I'm still "recovering" from GSA, and that quite a few geobloggers are probably doing the same thing, I'm going to extend the Accretionary Wedge deadline to Friday, October 30. (And yes, this does give me an excuse to throw some Halloween stuff in there...)

The original announcement can be found here - this month's theme is Earth Science outreach. I noticed that a few people had posts up about Earth Science Week activities and the DonorsChoose campaign - those are great topics for this month's Wedge!

Don't forget to submit your entries in the comments here or on the original announcement (or by emailing them to me through magmacumlaude AT

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

GSA Update #2

The last few day shave been absolutely crammed for me. Sunday was taken up by the short course I attended, but yesterday was the first day I had time to attend talks, and I've forgotten how easy it is to go into talk overload. Still, I was thrilled by the wealth of volcanology-related sessions there are at this meeting; here are a few of the talks I managed to catch:
  • Can static magma decompression trigger an eruption? Evidence from Kilauea Volcano, Hawai'i by Mike Poland. Many eruptions are associated with inflation of a volcanic edifice as magma moves into its "internal plumbing", but during the recent eruption at the Halema'uma'u crater at Kilauea's summit, decompression and deflation were observed. One hypothesis to explain this suggests that decompression in the magma chamber releases gases that can clear old channels for magma movement.
  • Characteristics and models of cyclic activity at Fuego Volcano, Guatemala (2005-2007) derived from visual observations and seismic, acoustic and thermal measurements by John Lyons. Fuego is a basaltic Guatemalan volcano that experiences cycles of "flow" (lava flow with minor Strombolian), "chug" (violent Strombolian and lava fountaining) and "pop" (explosions without effusion) activity. The authors applied the collapsing magmatic "foam" model of Jaupart & Verniolle to explain these cycles: flow behavior represents constant effusion of small bubbles of gas with magma near the top of the conduit, chugging represents continuous release of large bubbles, and popping happens when bubbles are released but the magma free surface is some distance below the mouth of the summit conduit.
  • Field trips as a tool for recruitment, retention and education by our own Callan Bentley of NOVA Geoblog. Callan often leads geology field trips along the Billy Goat Trail in the Great Falls area of Maryland, and finds that they're an important way of both stimulating the interest of his students and getting them excited about geology. I think my favorite quote was from one of the students he surveyed, who said that "Callan's field trips are like crack - I'm just here to get my fix." Having been on the Billy Goat Trail trip before, I totally agree.
  • Challenges to volcanic risk mitigation by John Ewert. There are physical, technical and social challenges involved in volcanic risk mitigation (volcanic risk is a combination of the chance of volcanic hazards occurring combined with the possible monetary, human, etc. consequences). Many of them have to do with how complicated volcanic behavior is, how difficult it is to forecast, and the importance of continual, timely hazard education and communication. It's not an easy job - but it's definitely important!
Monday was also the great alumni reception marathon, as well as the geobloggers meetup at the Tugboat Brewery. Seeing old friends was great, but getting to finally meet a whole new set of scientists was completely awesome. I'll try and post some of my blurry photos later, but Callan was our "official" photographer, and he'll have much better ones. It was a great turnout - at least fifteen people at one count, including some geo-tweeters. (I also think we created a new bar tradition while we were there - think Moe's Southwestern Grill and you get the idea.) There was definitely a high level of geekery, especially when the Iphones started coming out. I'm glad to have finally meet everyone, and I hope we get to do this again at other GSAs!

Monday, October 19, 2009

Quick GSA Update

Starting a slightly cloudy day in Portland with volcanology talks and the Geology in Government Mentors lunch - because what grad student will pass up a free lunch? (Or free anything, given what this trip is going to end up costing...) Yesterday was all short course for me - "When Worlds Collide", where the subject of interest was communication between emergency management officials and scientists. Since I'd eventually like to do work monitoring volcanoes, this was a really useful and insightful course for me - more on that later. Off to numerous receptions this evening, including the geobloggers meetup!

(I've been having the really cool experience of being recognized for my blogging by folks at the meeting. Me a minor celebrity? Wow!)

Hopefully more updates later today, unless I'm totally tired out by talks & receptions.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Bloggers galore at GSA

Since it seems there are going to be quite a few of us at GSA, I thought I'd put together a post with information on some of the talks and posters your favorite geobloggers are going to be giving. (Sadly, I won't be presenting anything this meeting, but I couldn't pass up the chance to finally meet some of the folks I only know from the interwebs.) This is a bit of a highlights list, but I'm always happy to add more if I missed something - let me know!

Sunday October 18:

HOUSE, P. Kyle, BROSSY, Cooper C., SAFRAN, Elizabeth, ELY, Lisa L., and O'CONNOR, Jim
Session No. 6
The Evolution of Basaltic Landscapes: Time and the River and Lava Flowing
Oregon Convention Center: Portland Ballroom 254
8:00 AM-12:00 PM, Sunday, 18 October 2009
Presentation Time: 9:05 AM-9:35 AM

Session No. 2
Geoscience Education I
Oregon Convention Center: C123
8:00 AM-12:00 PM, Sunday, 18 October 2009
Presentation Time: 9:20 AM-9:35 AM

GOUGH, Steve C.
Session No. 2
Geoscience Education I
Oregon Convention Center: C123
8:00 AM-12:00 PM, Sunday, 18 October 2009
Presentation Time: 11:05 AM-11:20 AM

HOUSE, P. Kyle
Session No. 53
Google Earth to Geoblogs: Digital Innovations in the Geosciences
Oregon Convention Center: Portland Ballrooms 251/258
1:30 PM-5:30 PM, Sunday, 18 October 2009
Presentation Time: 1:30 PM-1:45 PM

Session No. 53
Google Earth to Geoblogs: Digital Innovations in the Geosciences
Oregon Convention Center: Portland Ballrooms 251/258
1:30 PM-5:30 PM, Sunday, 18 October 2009
Presentation Time: 2:00 PM-2:15 PM

SCHOTT, Ronald C.
Session No. 53
Google Earth to Geoblogs: Digital Innovations in the Geosciences
Oregon Convention Center: Portland Ballrooms 251/258
1:30 PM-5:30 PM, Sunday, 18 October 2009
Presentation Time: 2:30 PM-3:00 PM

Session No. 41
Supervolcanoes, Ignimbrite Flare-ups, and Their Impacts: Definition, Debate, and New Developments (Posters)
Oregon Convention Center: Hall A
9:00 AM-6:00 PM, Sunday, 18 October 2009
Presentation Time: 9:00 AM-6:00 PM

Session No. 43--Booth# 400
Pluton Assembly: Duration, Mechanisms, and Structural Controls (Posters)
Oregon Convention Center: Hall A
9:00 AM-6:00 PM, Sunday, 18 October 2009

Monday October 19:

Session No. 90
Geoscience Programs at Community Colleges: Models for Success and Innovation
Oregon Convention Center: C124
8:00 AM-12:00 PM, Monday, 19 October 2009
Presentation Time: 10:30 AM-10:45 AM

Tuesday October 20:

ROMANS, Brian W., FILDANI, Andrea, GRAHAM, Stephan A., COVAULT, Jacob A., FOSDICK, Julie C.3, and HUBBARD, Stephen M.
Session No. 200
Tectonics and Basins of Convergent Margins
Oregon Convention Center: A107/108/109
1:30 PM-5:30 PM, Tuesday, 20 October 2009
Presentation Time: 3:35 PM-3:50 PM

HANNULA, Kimberly A., JEFFERSON, Anne J., CAMPBELL, Patricia B., FRANKS, Suzanne E.
Session No. 210
Techniques and Tools for Effective Recruitment, Retention and Promotion of Women and Minorities in the Geosciences
Oregon Convention Center: B117/118/119
1:30 PM-5:30 PM, Tuesday, 20 October 2009
Presentation Time: 5:00 PM-5:15 PM

JEFFERSON, Anne J., ABRAHAM, Joju, CAMPBELL, Ted R., and MOORE, Cameron
Session No. 177
Stream-Groundwater Interaction: New Understanding, Innovations, and Applications at Bedform, Reach, and River Network Scales (Posters)
Oregon Convention Center: Hall A
9:00 AM-6:00 PM, Tuesday, 20 October 2009

SCHOTT, Ronald C.
Session No. 192--Booth# 372
From Virtual Globes to Geoblogs: Digital Innovations in Geoscience Research, Education, and Outreach (Posters)
Oregon Convention Center: Hall A
9:00 AM-6:00 PM, Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Wednesday October 21:

MOORE, Cameron and JEFFERSON, Anne J.
Session No. 244--Booth# 65
Geomorphology (Posters)
Oregon Convention Center: Hall A
9:00 AM-6:00 PM, Wednesday, 21 October 2009

CROALL, Kelsey, JONES, Emily, SAFRAN, Elizabeth, O'CONNOR, Jim E., HOUSE, P. Kyle, and ELY, Lisa L.
Session No. 244--Booth# 76
Geomorphology (Posters)
Oregon Convention Center: Hall A
9:00 AM-6:00 PM, Wednesday, 21 October 2009

FOSDICK, Julie C., ROMANS, Brian W., FILDANI, Andrea, CALDERÓN, Mauricio N., BERNHARDT, Anne, and GRAHAM, Stephan A.
Session No. 253
Tectonics and Basins of Convergent Margins (Posters)
Oregon Convention Center: Hall A
9:00 AM-6:00 PM, Wednesday, 21 October 2009

I get on a plane tomorrow, and I'm really looking forward to the meeting. I probably won't be able to live-blog everything, but I'll do my best to write summaries of my days in the evenings. See you all in Portland!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Catching up

Wow, it would be nice to have more time to blog...unfortunately, three math-heavy courses this semester are not leaving me with much time to work on my own research, much less any other writing. So here's a bulleted update of a few things:
  • Earth Science Week is this week! I've got my toolkit, although lack of free time mostly means that I'll be putting up posters instead of sponsoring an event. Still, there are lots of things going on - check out the ESW Events Near You page and see what's happening in your state.
  • GSW Portland starts on Sunday (Saturday if you go to the welcome dinner). Callan has posted details for a geobloggers meetup at the Tugboat Brewing Company in downtown Portland (8 PM on Monday night). I'll be there - hope to see some of the rest of you!
  • GSA has an ad hoc committee on electronic communication (eGSA), and one of the members wants to put my name forward to be on it! I'm still awaiting details, but it looks like I may be in a position to make suggestions for how GSA can better utilize current web technology for communication. More details to come...
  • Don't forget the next Accretionary Wedge! The suggested due date for entries is the Sunday after GSA (Oct. 25th), but of course I'll add more entries as they come in. The theme this time around is Earth science outreach, so dust off those old field trip and demo photos and share some knowledge!
  • The deadline for the NSF's Graduate Research Fellowship Program is coming up fast - November 5th for the geosciences. If anyone out there is getting an application together and would like to talk to a real live Fellow (as I was introduced at an information session not too long ago), I'd be happy to answer questions about the application or the program.
That's all for now, folks. I have a few posts in the works, and hopefully I'll have some time to put them up this week. If not, I hope to see you at GSA!

Friday, October 2, 2009

Looking for something to do for Earth Science Week?

Even if you can't give your time to sponsor an event for Earth Science Week this year, you can help people realize the importance of Earth science by giving a little bit of your money. (For instance, I'm swamped with coursework and research and totally unlikely to pull together any event bigger than a Facebook post, but at least this way I can help someone else with an Earth science project!)

Every year, ScienceBlogs sponsors a donation drive with to help bring science to classrooms in financially struggling US schools. This year, Kim Hannula of All of My Faults Are Stress Related, Anne Jefferson of Highly Allocthonous, and Erik Klemetti of Eruptions have put together a geoscience-related donations page where you can sponsor a school project for students around the country to learn about the Earth. There are a number of different projects to choose from, ranging from soil science to weather to hydrology to seismology. (In particular, there's a group in Washington that needs to raise money for soil testing kits to go with a guest speaker's presentation, and they only have ten days left!)

This is a great way to make sure that Earth science outreach and learning happen in schools that are struggling to make ends meet. I'm definitely going to donate what I can, and I hope that all of you will think about doing the same!

Friday, September 25, 2009

Accretionary Wedge #21: Call for posts

The 20th edition of the Accretionary Wedge is up at Dave Bressan's cryology and co. There are some neat speculations about unsolved mysteries in geoscience - go check it out! (And even if you're a bit late, you can probably sneak another entry or two in there.)

Which brings us to the next topic of interest: October's Accretionary Wedge (#21), which will be hosted here. October is a big month for Earth science this year - not only is the Annual National GSA meeting happening in Portland from October 18-22, but it's also the month of Earth Science Week (October 11-17). In other words, it's a month for sharing knowledge about the Earth (something that we geobloggers do a lot).

A lot of our time revolves around professional and academic concerns, but it's a good idea not to forget the outreach - after all, if people who aren't our students or colleagues don't know why Earth science is important, where does that leave us? So here's your question for October:
What kind of Earth Science outreach have you participated in? Have you hosted a geology day at your department, given a field trip, gone to your child's/niece's/nephew's/cousin's school to do a demonstration, or sponsored an event for Earth Science Week? (This year's Earth Science Week is about Understanding Climate, so if you're a climate scientist, please chime in!) What was your favorite experience (or what funny stories came out of one that didn't go as planned)?
Since GSA is going to take up a big chunk of peoples' time, I'll set the due date for the weekend after the Portland meeting (Sunday, October 25th). If you're doing something for GSA or Earth Science Week, you should have plenty of time to write about it for the Accretionary Wedge - plus this edition of the Wedge gives you good incentive to plan something if you haven't already. (And, as always, if you're a little behind on your blogging, late entries will be added as they're received.)

Leave a link to your post in a comment or send it to me by email at magmacumlaude AT (replacing "AT" with @). Happy writing!

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Accretionary Wedge #20: Geologic discoveries for the future

David Bressan at cryology and co. posed this question for the latest edition of the Accretionary Wedge:

What remains to be discovered for future earth scientists what we (still) don't know about earth? What are the geological riddles that still lack answers - all questions are allowed - it could be a local anomaly, or a global phenomena, or something strange...(Naturally you can also include a possible answer to your problem).
One question I'd like to see answered in the future is something that many volcanologists have been (and are still) trying to figure out: What does the inside of a volcano really look like?

Early scientists thought that volcanoes were the homes of gods, or passages to Hell, or conduits for a vast network of subterranean fires. (At left is Athanasius Kirchner's 1664 engraving of the interior of Mount Vesuvius, from his book Mundus Subterraneus. Image from These ideas have all fallen by the wayside, but volcanologists today are still trying to work out the details of volcano 'plumbing', as it's commonly called.

This is no easy task. For one thing, there are many different kinds of volcano; it stands to reason that they're not going to have similar plumbing systems or structures. For another, if you're interested in what's going on inside an active volcano, it's understandably a little difficult to get close enough to the object in question to even begin to work on the question.

So how do volcanologists know anything at all about the interior of volcanoes - and how can they find out more?

One of the easiest ways is to look for volcanoes that are no longer active, and have been worn down by time and erosive forces. There are actually some great examples of these: The Summer Coon volcano in southern Colorado, which shows a spectacular radial pattern of dikes (see the Google Earth image at right); the cinder cones in the Southwestern Nevada Volcanic Field, which one of my professors studies (Keating et al., 2008); even my own study area, at the Santa Maria volcano in Guatemala, has a spectacular view of the internal structure of a stratovolcano (revealed by the 1902 eruption that blew a huge crater in the side of the mountain).

Another way is to use geophysical or remote sensing methods. Volcano seismology (including 3D seismic tomography, sort of a CAT-scan for volcanoes) has been used for years to locate and define the shapes of magma chambers under volcanoes, as well as the dikes and conduits which feed eruptions. For smaller edifices, methods such as ground-penetrating radar can give some idea of the shallow structure. Some researchers in Japan (Miyamachi et al., 1987) have even used explosions from fireworks to image the interior of lava domes (using the shock of the fireworks explosions to take the place of seismic shocks). GPS, ground tilt, and other deformation measurements give volcanologists an idea of how a volcano changes shape and volume, and from that some idea of the internal workings of the volcano can be discerned.

One interesting study by researchers in Japan (Sakuma et al., 2008) details a project where volcanologists actually drilled into an active volcano - Mount Unzen, which last erupted in 1996 and produced a summit lava dome. The Japanese volcanologists found a conduit with several feeder dikes, showing that Unzen's eruption wasn't fed by a single tube but several, and possibly from many sources. Still, this is only a small part of the volcano, and it's a very expensive and tricky way of finding things out.

Because of these methods, we know something about the interior of volcanoes. For example, the old chamber-conduit-summit eruption model for stratovolcanoes is, we now know, an extremely simplistic and not entirely correct view; many stratovolcanoes are riddled with dikes and smaller pockets of magma and other interesting things like cryptodomes. And they're hardly ever as nicely layered as this image suggests. (From the USGS Eastern Geographic Science Center Volcanoes! teacher resource.)

But we've still got a long way to go. You can't just X-ray a volcano, and it's very difficult to image an entire mountain with other methods, especially if it's in a remote area, large, and (as they tend to do), erupting. Knowing the plumbing of a volcano is, however, important for forecasting how the volcano will behave: Will it erupt vertically or laterally? Is the magma chamber shallow or deep, large or small, and is there more than one? Could there be outbreaks of lava on the flanks as well as the summit? Is the volcano structurally stable or collapsing? Does it contain a pressurized cryptodome that could explode, or lava that will ooze out of vents? These are all questions that depend on what we can find out about a volcano's insides, and that's something that volcanologists are always working on.

And hey, maybe I'm being pessimistic and someone will invent a whole-body-scan for a volcano. It could happen...

Additional reading:

Keating, G.N. et al., 2008, Shallow plumbing systems for small-volume basaltic volcanoes. Bulletin of Volcanology, v. 70, p. 563-582.

Miyamachi, H. et al., 1987, Seismic experiments on Showa-Shinzan lava dome using firework shots. Pure and Applied Geophysics, v. 125, no. 6, p. 1025-1037.

Poland, M.P. et al., 2004, Patterns of magma flow in segmented silicic dikes at Summer Coon Voclano,Colorado; AMS and thin section analysis. Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 219, p. 155-169.

Sakuma, S. et al., 2008, Drilling and logging results of USDP-4; penetration into the volcanic conduit of Unzenvolcano, Japan. Journal of Volcanology and Geothermal Research, v. 175, p. 1-12.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Speaking well

I won't touch on the political parts of the President's speech Wednesday night (or the fallout from adults not being able to behave like adults, on both sides), but I do want to write about the way in which it was delivered.

Public speaking is a big part of being a geologist, whether you're talking to a lab section, lecturing to a class full of hundreds of people, or giving a talk at a conference. One of the things that my professors and other mentors have stressed, many times, is the importance of speaking well - and that doesn't just mean being able to intelligently discuss your subject material, it means making it interesting. I could be talking about a volcanic eruption, which is one of the most flashy and exciting processes that goes on in geology, but if I gave the talk in a boring way, it would leach all the excitement right out of it.

Because I think President Obama's address was an excellent example of rhetoric, I'm going to use him as a guide to good speaking techniques. (NOTE: This doesn't necessarily mean that I remember and use all of these techniques when I'm speaking - I still get nervous during class presentations, and I have a number of bad habits I could get rid of. But I know what I can work on, and these are good examples of those things.) You can bring up videos of Obama's recent health care speech to see what I'm talking about, as well as videos of the other people I mention.
  • PRACTICE: This is the single most important thing you can do before giving a talk. You can bet that every single president has had speech coaches at one point or another, and that no one goes out and delivers a State of the Union address, for example, without having gone over it a few dozen times. President Obama probably practices enough to memorize most of his speeches, since he doesn't spend much time looking at his notes or a teleprompter. Since that's not always possible for someone giving a lecture to a class or presenting a class project, for example, at least make sure you know how your talk progresses - memorize the main points you want to get to, make notecards to remind you, and deliver the talk to your friends, parents, pets, potted plants, walls, etc. The more comfortable you are with your subject matter, the better your talk will be.
  • Posture: This is your stage dressing. If you slouch or hunch or turn away from your audience or stiffen up during a speech, they'll read your body language and deduce that you're not happy or comfortable or interested in the material. If it's not worth your time, why is it worth theirs? President Obama is very good at standing straight but not looking uncomfortable about it; he also turns and moves a little to keep from seeming glued in place. (The more recent former President Bush was all right at this, but he also tended to cling to the lectern during his speeches, so he came across as stiff and uncomfortable.) It's not good to take this too far and start rocking back and forth, though; that's just as annoying.
  • Hand motions: These are really important for underscoring your speech. Hand motions can put emphasis on a point or help your words flow. Combined with your tone of voice and volume, they can make something really memorable, or indicate that one part of the speech is important but not the main point. President Obama is great at using hand motions, and it makes his speeches very emphatic. On the other hand, one reason that former President Nixon is so painful to watch is that he has terrible timing, and his gestures don't match what he's saying. It's like watching someone else control his body. Also, if you're not comfortable using your hands, don't cling to the lectern or wave the laser pointer too much or bang your pointing stick on the floor (or your feet). I've seen people do all of these things, and they're awkward and distracting.
  • Eye contact: This is a trick they taught us at our TA training - pick a person in the audience and look at them for a little while. Make your audience feel like you're addressing them and not just the back wall. I'm pretty sure the President does this, because he's shifting his eyes around the room when he talks, and he's not staring at the teleprompter or his notes. Probably most of us still need notes for a long lecture, and don't have teleprompters, but it's a good idea to look up at your audience more often than you look down.
  • Tone & volume: Talk loudly enough to be heard, but modify your tone as appropriate, and don't talk in a monotone (remember Ben Stein? Audiences hate that). Be a little louder and more emphatic when you're making an important point, and pull back a little when you want the words to flow. Singers do this; it's the reason they get louder or softer, choppy or smooth, to give the appropriate emphasis to the lyrics they're singing. You don't want to trail off into mumbling or speak like a robot, because it gives the impression that you don't think it's important; modulating tone and volume keeps the audience interested.
  • Enunciation: Nothing is worse than a mumbling speaker. If your audience can't understand you, they'll stop paying attention. In addition, make sure you're pronouncing words correctly - it makes you look bad when you mispronounce a word, and it's easy to get an incorrect pronunciation into your head. Look it up beforehand; use or a colleague. (I absolutely hate it when people say nuclear "nuke-u-lar", for example. This is not a dialect or an accent thing; it's just wrong.) President Obama speaks very clearly and loudly, and I suspect that he could have given his speech without microphones and everyone would have heard it just fine.
  • Stalling tactics: Saying "um" a lot erodes your poise and is, frankly, painful for the audience. Stalling words ("um", "ah", etc.) are sometimes necessary, though, especially if you're thinking about the answer to a question (because most people don't speak how they write). If you must pause or stall, think of other ways to do it, and work on getting comfortable enough that you don't do it (in speeches or lectures, at least). Rephrase the question or make an easy comment before going on to your answer. Presidents giving speeches usually have teleprompters and can avoid this, but stalling techniques come out when they have to answer questions at press conferences (this is true for pretty much everyone, including President Obama). Also, "like" isn't an acceptable stalling word ever. It's really immature and older listeners find it annoying (and grammatically incorrect, to boot.)
It's not easy to remember all of these, of course, but the best speakers try to incorporate at least a few things (with practice being the most important one). Someday I hope I can be as good a speaker as the people who've taught me, and in the meantime I'll keep on working these tricks and techniques into my class presentations, conference talks, and anywhere else I can.