Thursday, January 29, 2009

My next self-indulgence...

...might have to be this t-shirt.

"God's Volcano Project" from BustedTees

When I saw the title, I immediately thought, "Obviously they're talking about the God from Monty Python and the Holy Grail, and he's going to bust out with 'I TOLD YOU PEOPLE TO QUIT WITH THE PSALMS!'"

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Best labs for introductory geology courses?

My department will be restructuring some of their introductory geology labs soon, and I was asked my opinion of the labs that I taught last semester. I was pretty brutal about some of them: they were difficult both to teach and to get the students to understand. When you're spending most of your time apologizing for the shortcomings of a flow chart that the students are supposed to be using to identify minerals, for example, neither you nor the students are getting much out of the lesson.

There were a number of other issues with the labs, but one of the big questions about the intro labs in general was what were the most valuable labs for different categories of student. The way our courses are likely to be restructured, we may end up with one general geo course and lab for the fall semester, and then two - one for geology majors and one geared more for environmental majors and non-geo-majors - in the spring.

So if you're going to split up classes that way, how do you create a set of labs that both hooks the potential majors but doesn't overwhelm the people who are just in the class for a science requirement? How do you make sure the majors are getting instruction in essential, basic skills, but still teach the non-majors something they find interesting and useful? To make things more complicated, how do you do this in a lab that, because of the 300+ person class size, meets every other week - meaning you only have six or seven labs to do this in?

My undergraduate intro geology lab followed this progression:
  • Mineral identification
  • Rock identification, rock types and the rock cycle
  • Structural features of sedimentary rocks (including mapping on aerial photographs, geologic map interpretation, and geologic cross sections)
  • Plate tectonics
  • Geologic interpretation of topo maps, aerial photos, and satellite images (emphasis on fluvial features)
  • Ocean and coastal processes
Looking back on it, it's both a little scattered and very heavy on what I tend to associate with geology rather than geography or environmental science - rocks and minerals, structure and tectonics, mapping. I remember finding the rock and mineral and mapping labs very useful, but I knew that I wanted to major in geology, and wanted to learn as much as possible as fast as possible.

The lab that I taught last semester went a little differently:
  • Rock descriptions (really basic stuff, not requiring mineral or rock IDs)
  • Mineral identification
  • Sedimentary rock identification
  • Impact cratering
  • Streamflow processes (with stream table)
  • Stratigraphic columns, topo maps and geologic cross sections
  • Folding and faulting
This set of labs reflects some of the research preferences in our department, planetary geoscience and Western NY geology (including the evolution of Niagara Falls and the Niagara Gorge).

I feel like there are pros and cons to each of the sets, but my viewpoint isn't necessarily what's going to be good for a nonmajor who needs a science requirement. And whether or not that nonmajor goes on in geology, it's important for them to get something useful out of the class.

So, how to compromise? It's a tough process. I'm not the one who gets to make the final decisions, but I think that there are some basic concepts that an intro lab should cover:
  1. Minerals. This is the basis of geology - if you don't know the minerals, you don't know the building blocks of the Earth. Everyone coming out of an intro lab should be able to recognize quartz and calcite, as one of the professors here said.
  2. Rock cycle and types. This is a chance to introduce both the rock types and the processes that create them, as well as a few basic rock names in each type. Students can then take this knowledge on to a petrology class (usually taught for igneous and metamorphic rocks, I've found) and a sedimentology/stratigraphy class (for the sed rocks).
  3. Surface processes. Weathering and erosion, as well as fluvial features could be included here. I found that my students had very little concept of how sediment was formed, transported, and turned into rocks. The lab that we did with the stream table helped fix some of that, and it was their favorite one; they were the most engaged and spent the most time thinking about what they were observing. This also would have been a fun one to do outside, but it was too cold by the time we got to it.
  4. Atmosphere and weather. I can think of a lot of people who watch the weather forecast every night without having the faintest idea how it's put together, or the difference between weather and climate, or (for example) why it snows a lot south of Buffalo but not so much north of the city. (This is not the case today, however.) Having a basic knowledge of the structure of the atmosphere and how certain types of weather and climates come about is important for life - you've got to deal with weather every day, after all.
  5. The solar system/geology on other planets. With all the great research going on these days into formation and evolution of other planets in the solar system, it would be a shame to skip planetary geology in an intro course. (It's also a good opportunity to chuck things at sandboxes, which seems to have gone over fairly well in this week's labs.)
  6. Maps. Absolutely NO ONE should leave a geology or environmental science course without knowing how a map is put together and how to read it. In the age of GPS navigation and Mapquest, it's honestly shocking how many students I encounter that can't deal with a paper map. Including topographic and geologic maps in this section would be good too, especially for majors, but also as a way of exposing students to something other than a talking car computer or a fold-out road map. (This would also be a great chance to integrate Geocaching into a lesson and get the students outside.)
  7. Natural hazards/disasters. This would be a favorite of mine just for the chance to talk about volcanoes, but it's a chance to separate students from what they hear on the news (which is often wrong) and explain what's really happening when, say, a hundred-year flood occurs, or why an earthquake will or won't create a tsunami (and what to do if you're in danger of getting hit by one). It's also exciting stuff, which is always important if you're trying to hook people on a major.
Just a few thoughts on what I'd find useful as a beginning geology student, really. I'm sure that the basics would vary depending on the department and who's qualified to teach certain subjects.

So what would you all, who collectively have much more experience with this sort of thing, want to see in an introductory lab? At some point I might get asked to help decide this for my current department, so your input is greatly appreciated!

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Predictions, Forecasting and Eruptions

A half-joking query that I'm sure every volcanologist has encountered in their career is: "When will the volcano erupt? When's the 'big one' coming?" A major misconception of the public is that volcanologists can predict eruptions. Volcanologists, on the other hand, prefer to say that they can sometimes forecast eruptions - but not all the time, and often only in rough terms. This is a situation where semantics can cause a rift between scientists and the public, and it's the responsibility of both the scientist and the layperson to help fix it - the scientist by defining their word choice, and the layperson by realizing that in volcanology, forecast and predict don't mean the same thing.

(Photo of the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, Phillipines, in 1991; courtesy US Geological Survey Photographic Library.)

In volcanology, a prediction would mean saying that a volcano will erupt with a specific type and magnitude of phenomena, at a very specific time. If I were to say, "Mount St. Helens will produce a Plinian eruption in the next month," I would be predicting the volcano's behavior. There's also a good chance I'd be wrong. Volcanologists do not make predictions.

A forecast, however, involves probabilities, much like a weather report. "There is a high probability that Mount St. Helens' activity will increase in intensity in the next few weeks," would be an example of a forecast. (NOTE: THIS IS NOT AN ACTUAL FORECAST - real ones for Mt. St. Helens can be found here.) A forecast is a statement of what volcanologists think may happen based on current monitoring and evidence of past eruptions. But even when they're based on the best data available, forecasts can be wrong; they are, however, a more responsible way of answering the "when will it blow" question.

Activity forecasts are usually associated with currently active volcanoes, or volcanoes which are showing signs of becoming active. If, for example, an earthquake swarm occurs under a volcano, scientists might take this to mean that magma is moving through the volcano's plumbing system, if they are the right kind of earthquakes. Or, an inflation of a volcano's flanks might indicate an influx of new melt into the chamber of an already active volcano. Volcanologists have learned what the general signs are that might indicate volcanic activity is about to start or change, but these signs vary significantly depending on the volcano.

In addition, most volcanoes have not been studied long enough to understand the full range of their behavior. 30 or 40 years might represent a volcanologist's entire career, but in geologic terms, it's an incredibly short period, especially considering that volcanoes can erupt over timescales of hundreds of thousands of years. (In addition, eruption styles can change, so even if scientists understand a volcano's current behavior, they can still be surprised by sudden shifts in eruption style.)

What this all boils down to is that NO ONE, at this point in the evolution of volcanology, can say exactly what a volcano will do. Volcanoes are constantly surprising even the people who have spent their lives studying them. Because volcanoes are natural systems, there is always a chaotic element to their behavior (scientists call this aleatoric uncertainty). Aleatoric uncertainty can be reduced by acquiring knowledge about a system, but can never be completely eliminated. Volcanologists do their best with the knowledge that they have, and try to take into account the full range of phenomena that a volcano can produce, but hazard analysis and mitigation are still difficult.

This is why websites like this one, which advertises a computer program that supposedly forecasts volcanic eruptions, are extremely misleading and even dangerous*. It is no great stretch to say that a volcano that has been active in the last decade will continue to be active, as the website's "forecast" does in many cases, but those volcanoes could just as easily cease their activity. Computer simulations of the plumbing systems of volcanoes are still being refined, and we'll probably never really be able to "see" inside a volcano with the accuracy that will allow us to predict its behavior. There are simply too many variables to take into account: different eruptive materials, structures, weaknesses, melt compositions and rheologies, gas contents, etc etc.

The Volcano Listserv recently distributed this email about the website I mentioned:
Please be advised that Volcano Listserv does not endorse the forecasts
made by R.B. Trombley or others that have not been vetted in the
peer-reviewed scientific literature. To our knowledge, Dr. Trombley does
not have training as a volcanologist, and his previous reports have
raised concerns among a number of volcano practitioners and
organizations (including WOVO, the World Organization of Volcano
Observatories) about the possibility of misinterpretation.

Dr. Jonathan Fink
Founder and Editor, Volcano Listserv

Dr. Warner Marzocchi
Co-chairman WOVO (World Organization of Volcano Observatories)

-----Original Message-----
From: VOLCANO [] On Behalf Of Kimberly Genareau
Sent: Sunday, January 11, 2009 7:54 PM
Subject: Year 2009 Volcano Eruption Forecast

From: R. B. Trombley,Ph.D. <>

The global volcano eruption forecast for the year 2009 as forecasted
by ERUPTION Pro. 10.7
can be found at the following URL:
I'm going to repeat the warning: DO NOT use this website, or anything like it, as a means of deciding whether you are in danger of a volcanic eruption. Listen to the volcanologists who study a particular volcano, your local Civil Defense or other disaster prevention agency, the National Guard, etc. They are the ones who have the most experience in dealing with eruptions, and that experience is more valuable and reliable than anything a computer program can spit out.

*I did notice that the website for the program contains a disclaimer stating that the software is not the be-all and end-all of eruption forecasting, but I take issue with the fact that the software is in any way touted as a legitimate tool for hazard mitigation. Especially by a person who has absolutely no qualification as a volcanologist, and who is trying to sell an MS-DOS-based program for almost $500. I certainly wouldn't buy it - the program or the claims.

Friday, January 9, 2009

Geology and the movies again...or "Why Disney's Pocahontas Briefly Makes Me Want To Scream At The TV"

This is actually an older post I've been sitting on, but I wanted to get something posted this week, even if it's not about current events.

I love watching Disney movies, but occasionally the scientist gets in the way of the nostalgic enjoyment. I was reminded of this when "The Virginia Company" came up on my music player's shuffle list. Pocahontas, which came out in 1995, is set in an area that I'm now very familiar with (the Historic Triangle, home of Yorktown, Williamsburg and Jamestown). It's also on the Coastal Plain, which William & Mary's Geology Department is very favorably situated to study. In fact, unless you drive west for an hour or so, all you see in that part of Virginia is Coastal Plain. Aside from the cool fossils and some of the sedimentary features (and a big honking impact crater, although you can't see it) the Coastal Plain has relatively little to interest a volcano nut - I had to go out to Richmond to see any hard rock aside from river cobbles.

From the Geology of Virginia Website at W&M (click to view the bigger version).

That doesn't mean I didn't pay attention to the Coastal Plain geology. I did - and that's why seeing the beautiful landscapes that show up during John Smith's bold adventuresomeness in the "Mine, Mine, Mine" sequence irritates me enough that I want to smack the animators.

Where the hell did that mountain come from? (For that matter, why is it magically spouting a waterfall?) Did any of those animators actually go to Jamestown? Or look at a photo? Or a map? Jamestown is pretty much in a swamp, which was a really poor choice to begin with (one might assume that the colonists weren't thinking about the scenic needs of future moviemakers when they landed there). There are no mountains, no waterfalls, and NO CLIFFS there...

...unless you count the crumbly sandy ones along the rivers.

See? Not impressive*. What is impressive is that John Smith apparently had the ability to teleport himself to the Piedmont in the course of the musical number, because you ain't getting those rolling hills in Eastern Virginia. And the scene where Pocahontas jumps over a waterfall from a tall rocky cliff means that she managed to teleport all the way out to the Blue Ridge, because you don't get waterfalls without bedrock, and the Coastal Plain doesn't have it.

The one thing that the movie does get right about the geology is that you'd have a hard time finding any gold on the Coastal Plain. In other parts of Virginia, certainly, but on the Coastal Plain, you sometimes have trouble just finding dirt, much less gold. (There is a LOT of sand out there, however.)

I'll ignore all the film's other inconsistencies here - screwing up all the Native American names, and the whole John Smith/Pocahontas thing, which didn't really happen - since other people have ripped into them much more eloquently than I could. Let's just say that while the Disney crew might have had good intentions, they managed to both insult Virginia's current Native Americans and perpetuated a beloved but totally inaccurate American myth. AND annoy the geologists.

I'm not saying that the more historically accurate movies are much better, mind you. The New World, which actually was filmed near Jamestown (the movie people hung out in Williamsburg when they weren't filming, which the W&M crowd thought was pretty cool), is a mind-numbing artsy-fartsy epic that drags on until you find yourself wanting to join the colonists who are croaking from malnutrition. It does get the utter stupidity of trying to found a colony on swampland that the natives obviously aren't even bothering with, as well as the oppressive heat and humidity and clouds of biting insects right, but in this case accuracy doesn't make for entertaining cinema. (And those actors really were out in an Eastern Virginia summer, which makes me feel really sorry for the ones who had to wear wool. I spent one summer in Williamsburg and immediately vowed never to do so again, because I like to breathe air rather than soup.)

In the end, I do realize that Pocahontas is a cartoon, and Disney, and geologic accuracy was not a major concern of the movie. But I do feel like the animators cut some corners and went for flashy rather than putting in the effort to reproduce what the Jamestown colonists might really have seen when they arrived in what would eventually become Virginia. For a movie that was otherwise beautifully animated, that was a real disappointment.

And I cannot forgive the cliffs. :)

*In fact, we reduced what little impressiveness they have by initiating multiple mass wasting events just by digging.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

Go for the art, stay for the volcanoes

Happy New Year! Here's to a successful, productive, safe, and above all fun new year. I've recently noticed that I've been added to a list of the 100 Best Blogs for Earth Science Scholars, which is quite an honor, and especially since I'm in such great company. Seems like a good way to start off the year to me!

A few days ago I went to Washington DC to get my bi-yearly fix of the museums, which (for me) generally means drooling over the volcanic rock displays in the Natural History museum and scarfing down gelato in the in the cafe between the National Gallery buildings. (I also saw the newly-renovated American History museum, which was somewhat unimpressive, and the new Ocean Hall at NMNH, which was awesome. Callan's review pretty much covers everything I could come up with to say.)

My favorite stop of the day, however, was in the East Building of the National Gallery. They're currently hosting an exhibition about pre- and post-eruption Pompeii called
Pompeii and the Roman Villa: Art and Culture around the Bay of Naples. Most of the exhibit is devoted to the way that wealthy Romans decorated their homes, and how they liked to copy and emulate Greek art, and it's really neat; the frescoes are especially beautiful, and the statuary, while probably not something I'd want in my own home, is incredibly lifelike and masterfully done. (It's also very cool to look Julius Caesar in the eye, because you get a sense of who the man was rather than the legend.) Unfortunately, there was no photography of any kind allowed in the exhibition, so I can't show you what was on display. There is a pretty neat video about the exhibition on the NGA website, though.

The most exciting part of the exhibit, in my opinion, wasn't the sculpture or the frescoes, but the room that showed 18th-century romanticizing of the 79 A.D. eruption. Why? Because it had these paintings on display:

Pierre-Jacques Volaire, The Eruption of Mt. Vesuvius, 1777; from the North Carolina Museum of Art

Joseph Wright of Derby, Vesuvius from Portici, 1774-1776; from the Huntington Library, California

And a copy of this book:

For a volcanologist, you can't beat that. I got a few funny looks when I was explaining to my dad why I was so excited about seeing this part of the exhibition, but there were a few smiles in there too. And it isn't every day you get to see such beautiful work that also reflects some of the earliest beginnings of the science of volcanology.

The exhibit will be at the National Gallery until March 22, so if you have a chance to stop by, I would definitely recommend it. (Even though the NGA isn't part of the Smithsonian system, it's still free, so it's affordable even for a poor grad student like me. Unless you give into the temptation of the gelato bar, that is.)