Thursday, November 24, 2011

I'm thankful for ... minerals?

So today is Thanksgiving Day, a national holiday for those of us in the U.S.; a day to set aside time for reflection about the things we are thankful for.  I think it's a great holiday.  Officially declared during the Civil War by the 16th President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, but it has deep roots in the settling of the Americas, and most of the time people think about pilgrims & native Americans on this day.

It is easy to be thankful for food.  Especially delicious food that's easy to enjoy when surrounded by family and friends.  That roasted turkey, mashed potatoes & gravy, sweet potato casserole, pecan pie, apple pie, and all the rest are going to put a smile on everyone's face; a few naps will be taken as well!

As a geoscientist, I think there is another dimension of thankfulness that often gets overlooked - the Earth itself. It's easy to be thankful for food at a meal - is it easy to be thankful for a tank of gasoline?  for copper wiring?  for concrete sidewalks?  for an aluminum can?  All of these things are part of our daily lives and make modern society possible.  Without them, life would be downright primitive. So I think I should be thankful for them, because they make life better.

Hold up, though - these things also bring about some serious problems.  In a typical copper mine, the copper makes up less than 1% of the rock, and the other 99% is worthless rock to be dug up and stuck in a huge pile somewhere, leaving an enormous scar in the surface that's never going to get filled.  Take a look at the Bingham Canyon Copper mine, one of the largest Cu mines on Earth:

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This hole in the ground is over 2 miles across, and is never going to be filled in because no one will ever want to spend the money to do it.  And gasoline?  Remember that incredible oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico a year ago?  A huge disaster, destroying life and making a mess of the whole Gulf!  If you missed it, there were some great visualizations, such as this one and this one, that allow you to see how big the spill was compared to any other place on Earth.

So how can we be thankful for things that bring such disasters to our world?

Maybe that's exactly the point.  Maybe we get these messes because we never think about the natural resources we use, where they come from, the price that must be paid to get them, and the impact they have on our environment.  Maybe, just maybe, if we were more thankful for these things, instead of just ignoring them, our change in attitude might cause a change in consumption.  If we valued these things enough to be thankful for them, then maybe we'd start to see more responsibility, and less waste.

I said at the beginning that I think Thanksgiving is a great holiday.  And the reason I think that is because it is one that deals entirely with attitude.  It is impossible to celebrate Thanksgiving with a crummy attitude.  The need to take some time to reflect on the important things in life and be thankful shoves the crummy attitudes of cynicism out of my head.  There are major environmental problems that result from the abuse of Earth's resources, but maybe a more thankful attitude would help us change some behaviors from neglect to proper care.  So I'm thankful for the Li in my cell phone battery, the Cu wires in my house, and the Pt & Hg lightbulbs I use to light my home.  And hopefully I can turn my gratitude into more responsible use of these things, and less abuse on the planet they come from.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Sand Dunes at White Sands Natl. Monument

So apparently the geoblogosphere has gone "yeah sand dunes!!" in the last week (check them out here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here!).  I'll contribute a brief introduction to White Sands National Monument, located just west of Alamogordo, NM.  White Sands contains numerous sand dunes, and as you can see in the pics below, they are quite tall and excellent for jumping off of!  Geologically these are interesting because they aren't made of quartz, but rather are made of gypsum (CaSO4 * 2H2O).  Therefore, the sand is soft, not abrasive, and cool to the feet even when the sun has been beating down on it all summer long.  It is located in a restricted basin, and there is very little annual rainfall, which would serve to slowly dissolve the gypsum.  This location is at: 32° 49.225' N, 106° 16.404' W.  Take a look in google maps - there are hundreds of dunes of all shapes & sizes.  The area totals about 20 miles wide!  

Thursday, November 3, 2011

International Development & Geoscience

At last month's Geological Society of America meeting, there were a number of talks on the role that the geosciences can play in international development.  The presentations were fantastic and challenging, and I think you'll agree.

First off, the Darcy lecture was given this year by Stephen Silliman, a professor of hydrogeology at the University of Notre Dame University.  He spoke about the work they have been doing in Benin, west Africa, where they are working to obtain reliable, long term hydrologic data on the quality of the water.  He spoke of the conditions of the country, where many lack access to clean drinking water, and sewage is often not treated appropriately.  Consequently, many of the problems related to water quality are in fact caused by contamination of wells and streams by human and animal waste.  He spoke about the need to work with the local people in a long term relationship, where the local people come to an ownership of the changes that are needed.  But cultural norms are difficult to change.  I was deeply impressive with his passion to help the people of Benin; it was clear that he was not only interested in scientific data on water, but also he struck me as being very missional about helping these people by using his professional abilities.  It is wholly appropriate for Stephen to be selected as the 2011 Lecturer for the National Groundwater Association's Darcy Lecture Series.  In my opinion this reflects very well on the leadership who selected him for this prestigious appointment.

Additionally, there was an entire session on the subject that took place on Tuesday morning during the meeting.  The session was very well attended with about ~50 people in the audience on average.  I won't attempt to summarize all of the talks here, but the abstracts are all well worth reading.  Jeffrey Greenberg, presiding over the session, began with a discussion of the critical importance of geoscience in issues of resource development, economics, politics, natural disasters, sustainability, and even "the destiny of nations".  Paradoxically, however, he also stated that geoscientists appear to lag behind people in other disciplines in serving in these roles, and instead these roles are filled by engineers, social scientists, and biologists.  As I listened to the talks, some very common themes emerged: 1) professionals will only succeed through working with local people; 2) professionals will only succeed through long term relationships; 3) many of the obstacles are simply needing to properly deal with waste (both solid and wastewater); 4) people are working on these issues all over the world; 5) expertise in hydrogeology is necessary; and 6) behavioral change is difficult but absolutely necessary.  Fortunately, a new NGO has recently been developed, Hydrogeologists without Borders, to help centralize information & resources.  There were talks about Guatemala, Nigeria, Kosova, Dakar, Costa Rica, and Arabia.  One of the more fascinating talks was by James Clark, professor at Wheaton College, who described his work to create inexpensive geophysical equipment to be used for groundwater exploration.  I was amazed at how cheaply he was able to purchase the necessary parts and construct equipment for resistivity and seismic refraction measurements, for less than about $250 each.  He showed data comparing his equipment to more expensive (~$5000-20,000) equipment, and the results brought a smile to every face in the crowd.  He also wrote the software that can be run on an inexpensive laptop computer.  Imagine how many of these sets of geophysical equipment could be purchased & put to use in the developing world for only a few tens of thousands of dollars.  The potential here is staggering.  Another talk was given by a senior geology major in my department here at Olivet Nazarene University, Sam Smidt, who spoke about his work to test the ability of a small-scale version of a biosand filter to remove E. coli from water.  He gave a great presentation and I doubt anyone was able to tell that he's an undergrad!  Few undergrads give talks at GSA, so we're very proud of him and the work he did with my colleague Dr. Kevin Brewer.

The session proposal was written up last December by Jeffery Greenberg, my friend and colleague at Wheaton College, and first sponsored by the Affiliation of Christian Geologists.  As current President of the organization, I couldn't be more proud of Jeff's work to make this session happen.  I hope he'll go for it again this coming year, and that more geoscientists will get involved in presenting and attending.  International development is a place where the abilities of many geoscientists meet with the world's deep needs.