Brazos River Fossils of Southeast Texas

Adriane here-

A simple location map (inset) and aerial view of the Whiskey Bridge fossiliferous outcrops on the Brazos River.

At the end of January, I was in College Station, Texas sampling sediment cores from my recent IODP expedition (more to come on that soon!) and editing our science chapters. It just so happened that while I was in Texas, I also celebrated my birthday. Of course, I had to do something extra fun, so my friend and I (who also sailed with me last summer in the Tasman Sea) went fossil collecting!

College Station is a relatively small town in southeast Texas, made famous as it is the home of Texas A & M University. There’s plenty of bars and restaurants, dancing spots and cowboy hats (seriously, I’ve never seen so many people wearing cowboy boots!). But if you know where to look, College Station is also home to another gem: Eocene-aged (~41 million years ago) fossils!

My snazzy rental car I drove around College Station !

It just so happened that while I was visiting College Station, I was given a 2018 silver Camaro by the rental car company. Needless to say, we were paleontologists cruising around in style! So my friend and I hopped in the car in our best fossil-collecting gear and made the 15 minute trip to find the ‘most fossiliferous site in Texas’. The outcrop itself is under the Whiskey Bridge on the Brazos River, a bit closer to Bryan, TX than College Station, really. The parking area was located near the bridge, which required pulling off the interstate on a dirt road to get to. Once we were there, it was a short hike under the bridge, and we were instantly in fossil haven!

A view of the outcrop on the Brazos River, under the Whiskey Bridge. Notice how fine-grained and dark the sediments are towards the bottom, then get coarser (chunkier-looking) towards the top. The coarser-grained sediments indicate a sea level fall.

During the Eocene, this part of Texas was covered by a shallow sea, probably between the shore and the shelf-slope margin, with the shoreline estimated to be about 50 miles away. So, this area was never very deep, but comparable to the continental margin of the east coast U.S. today. Because the water was deep enough that energy from waves didn’t reach the bottom, fine-grained sediments accumulated here. Most of the outcrop was very fine-grained and dark in color, which geologists would call a mudstone. The dark color indicates that the rock is high in organic material from animals, plankton, algae, and bacterial that lived in the upper water column when the sea was here. There are also sandstones preserved at this location, indicating that sea level dropped at one point, and that major storms likely brought in thin sands from shore.

A close-up view of the fine-grained sediments that contained fossils.

It’s partly due to the fine-grained material that tons of delicate, tiny fossils were preserved in the strata. The dominant fossils that can be  found at this location are invertebrates, including gastropods (snails), bivalves, scaphopods, bryozoa, and corals. There are few vertebrate fossils preserved, such as shark teeth, gar teeth, otoliths (fish ear bones), and squid beaks. Even rare trace fossils (preserved movements and burrows from animals) can be found, including coiled worm tubes. We didn’t have much time to collect, as we were just supposed to be gone for about an hour over lunch.

Even though we didn’t have much time at the outcrop, we sure did leave with some awesome fossils! Most of what we found were gastropods- species of Pseudoliva, Latirus, Protosurcula, and Turritella. All were small, with some only being about 3 mm in length! There were few clam shells, as they were mostly delicate and fell apart when we tried to pry them out of the sediments. I felt pretty lucky to have found a fish otolith, or inner ear bone (I didn’t realize that’s what it was until I took it out to write this post)! Towards the end of our trip, my friend found a large (~2 inch) shark tooth! It was her first time finding one, so that was pretty thrilling! Content with our finds, we hopped in the car, muddy and happy, to head back to sample cores in College Station.

A small preview of the fossils found under the Whiskey Bridge on the Brazos River. All of these fossils are invertebrates, except the rounded fossil at top center; that is a fish ear bone!

But unfortunately, that wasn’t the end of our journey that day. After being on the interstate for 2 minutes, I was pulled over by a state trooper for speeding 3 mph over the speed limit. The officer asked us where we were going, and that he was only going to give me a warning. I then had to get out of the car to get my license (it was in my book bag in the trunk, with my fossils) when the officer asked what was in my bags. Happy for the distraction, I enthusiastically showed him my fossils and began prattling on about the Eocene, in hopes he would lose interest and let us go. Instead, he was totally interested in the geologic facts I was spouting at him! He then said, ‘I wondered what you two were doing under the bridge’.

So as it turns out, driving a new Camaro onto a muddy dirt road near a bridge is a great way to gain the attention of state troopers.  I’ll be sticking to my muddy, beat up Jeep for future fossil collecting trips 🙂

Click here for a link to field trip guides, fossil ID guides, an outcrop guide, and a link to a paper about the Whiskey Bridge outcrop!

What does climate change mean for New York City?

Impact of climate change on New York City’s coastal flood hazard: Increasing flood heights from the preindustrial to 2300 CE

Andra J. Garner, Michael E. Mann, Kerry A. Emanuel, Robert E. Kopp, Ning Lin, Richard B. Alley, Benjamin P. Horton, Robert M. DeConto, Jeffrey P. Donnelly, David Pollard

Data and Methods: This study employs various models to understand the future impact of climate change from tropical cyclones. These cyclones create storm surges, which are abnormal rises in water that often lead to flooding. To model storm surge heights in the past (1970-2005), this study uses data from about 5,000 storms. For predicting future storm characteristics for the next few centuries, the study assesses about 12,000 storms. Researchers use storm data to run a variety of simulations that have varying parameters. For example, they can modify the trajectories and wind speeds of tropical cyclones, and the frequencies and intensities of storms to model different scenarios.

They then used the storm models to quantify potential flooding in New York City by combining estimates of storm surge heights with anticipated sea level rise. Such changes in sea level are governed by mass loss of glaciers and ice sheets, thermal expansion, ocean dynamics, and water storage on land. Again, they modified these parameters in a number of models to predict flooding from future storm surges. This study focuses on two specific scenarios from previously developed models: Representative Concentration Pathway (RCP) 4.5 and 8.5. Various modifications to RCP4.5 and RCP8.5 are used to make predictions about the future of storm-related flooding in New York City.

FIgure 1. Projected sea level rise from present day to 2300. Climate projections RCP4.5 (yellow) and RCP8.5 (orange) have much lower projections than the red and maroon projections that represent enhanced Antarctic Ice Sheet melt. By 2300, sea level near New York City could rise by a maximum of 15.7 meters (51.5 feet).

Results: This group found that the maximum wind speeds of tropical cyclones in the future are much greater than the maximum speeds we see today. From this they conclude that future tropical storms will be much more intense, and the storm surges that reach New York City will be greater. They also found that the tracks of tropical cyclones will shift with time, and the density of tracks near New York City will increase.

For the next century, this study estimates sea level rise for New York City to be between 0.55 and 1.4 meters (Figure 1). From 2100 to 2300, they predict possible rises of 1.5 to 5.7 meters. If they increase the potential ice loss from the Antarctic Ice Sheet, those values drastically increase to a maximum sea level rise of 15.7 meters by 2300. Remarkably, these values simply estimate relative sea level rise without the added effect of storm surge. Toward the end of this century (2080 to 2100), flood heights are expected to be 0.7 to 1.4 meters higher than modern New York City floods (Figure 2). By 2300, storm surges could cause floods that are 2.4 to 13.0 meters higher than modern values.

Figure 2. These four different models show flood height versus density. Each model compares modern heights to RCP4.5, RCP8.5, and both scenarios with enhanced Antarctic Ice Sheet melt. With all models and all scenarios, the average flood height is expected to increase.

Why is this study important? At present, an increase in the intensity and frequency of storms would have a negative effect on coastal zones like New York City. However, in a future with higher sea levels, the effects of tropical cyclones and storm surges could be catastrophic. Continued emissions of greenhouse gases, rising temperatures, and consequential melting of ice will create a future with significantly higher sea levels. As storms develop and create surges of higher water, their resulting floods will be larger than anything New York City–or any other city–has seen before. Comprising of nearly 50 million built square meters and over 8 million people, this coastal city is a climate change target. The hazards associated with sea level rise in such a large and populous area are unimaginable. This study only looked at the effects on this one city; but there are places around the world that risk losing everything to climate change and sea level rise.

The big picture: Sea level will rise as human-driven climate change continues to warm global temperatures and melt ice sheets. The combined effects of higher sea levels and more intense tropical cyclones will create storm surges with the potential for catastrophic flooding in major cities like New York.

Citation: Garner, A.J., Mann, M.E., Emanuel, K.A., Kopp, R.E., Lin, N., Alley, R.B., Horton, B.P., DeConto, R.M., Donnelly, J.P., and Pollard, D., 2017. Impact of climate change on New York City’s coastal flood hazard: Increasing flood heights from the preindustrial to 2300 CE. PNAS. DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1703568114

Mock United Nations Climate Negotiations Game

Andy here-

A key question for society is how do we transfer the ability to understand other people’s perspective, to value one another? How do you teach somebody to care about other people?

I tackled that in a physical science class this semester. Since I teach Historical Geology, we spent time on climate change. Specifically, I implemented a climate change game in the class in which the students organize and lead a mock-United Nations climate negotiation.  The exercise is designed to teach students climate awareness and the impacts of climate change on the global system. All of the materials to teach this exercise are available online for free.

At the end of our exercise one student wrote:

I learned that if we don’t start making changes right now, developing countries will be at risk.

I feel motivated to make changes. I will try to reduce my CO2 emissions and advise others to do the same.

Want the same outcome and understanding from your students? Here’s how:

I teach a 60 or 30-student Historical Geology course at Sam Houston State University. It covers a multitude of different subjects; from evolution, to the birth of the solar system, to the climate system. One of the aspects of climate science that I wanted the students to leave with was an appreciation for modern climate change, and how it affects individuals in developing countries (this course was taught in a Hurricane Harvey affected region). While this course doesn’t shy away from controversy, this is the first time that we had to address our modern political (ir)reality head-on.

Our activity was a mock-UN climate negotiation game. World Climate Simulation is a well-respected activity. It’s been used in a number of different contexts from high schools to practicing for UN negotiations, and is available in several different languages.

In my course we played the 6-region version. There were delegations from the United States, European Union, Other Developed Countries (Russia, Australia, etc.), China, India, and Other Developing Countries. Each student gets a page (front and back) write up about their region and its position on climate related issues.

The goal of the exercise is to keep the world to 2°C of warming and to have $100 billion in the Green Climate Fund. Using this game in class gives students a taste for the complicated nature of these negotiations and an understanding of how the climate system works. The game in particular highlights the difficulty of being in a developing nation, by making abundantly clear the inequity between groups. The students also see, by experimenting themselves, how quickly emissions have to peak and reduce to keep us at 2°C. Gaming wise, in the end, the students should get that the key is to reduce the consumption of developed nations, and for those nations to include enough money into the Green Climate Fund to allow the developing nations to skip the fossil fuel age.

Here’s how the game works in practice

The facilitator (the teacher/instructor) opens the summit with an address asking the delegates to feel the full weight of their duties, and to consider the world they would like their children to live in. Then, they attempt set several positions:

  • Year to peak emissions
  • Year to begin reducing emissions
  • Yearly percentage of reductions
  • Contributions to the green fund

After the group sets their initial position they begin arguing with the other groups. After 20-25 minutes the summit reconvenes, the facilitator asks them to present their positions in 2 minutes each. Then there is a discussion of if they think they have made it. Lastly, their positions are transferred to C-ROADs, a complicated-enough climate model (click here for model), and the delegates can see how they did.

I had two helpers help me facilitate the course, Time Scavengers Editor in Chief Susanna Fraass and an upper-level geology student. They were most helpful the first day, as set up can be overwhelming when you’ve got 60 irritable undergrads. Each group has a placard to show their area. The more developed countries get snacks and tablecloths, while the Developing nations have to sit on a tarp. In one section the India delegation got a table and no chairs, while the Chinese delegation got too few, so several had to stand. Susanna walked around the room recording interesting events or statements from students while the upper-level geo student either made mischief as a fossil-fuel representative or helped with running C-ROADs and ensured everybody was ‘on-task’.

Group dynamics obviously play a big role in this. I found that in the smaller class ~5% of the students opted out and just played on their phones, while in the bigger one it was closer to 15-20%. I made attendance for the week of the negotiation 5% of their grade, so there were students that were less than enthusiastic about being in class who normally skip. In the coming semester I will probably have a few of the students in the larger class play the two lobbies, Environmental and Fossil Fuel, in order for them to have more to do. 10 students-per group was too many. The Fossil Fuel Lobby gets candy to sway emissions levels, while the Environmental lobby gets to make signs and organize a demonstration.

The way that the two iterations of the game preceded was very different. The 30-student class ended up modeling how climate negotiations proceed in 2017, while the 60-student class modeled circa-2015 negotiations. In the 30-student class, the US stayed at their table in the back of the room requiring other students to come up to them to discuss policy. When discussing policy, they were inflexible in their positions, even going so far as to attempt to run a scam on the Developing Nations. The US told the Developing Nations they would reimburse them for their additions to the Green Climate Fund (the developing world is to be the recipient of those funds, not pay in). They made a big statement about how they were going to engage their philanthropic community and advocate for individuals from the US to donate. None of that actually is included in the game, so it was in essence, ‘hot air’. In that vacuum the EU stepped in and attempted to lead negotiations with the rest of the world, though somewhat ineffectively. That is not a comment about the ability of the EU to negotiate in that class, one student in particular was giving her all. It’s more an observation that the ire in the room was directed at the US and most actions seemed to be inspired by anger in the directions of the US representatives roleplaying the Trump administration.

In the 60-student class the US took an active role in negotiations, mirroring the Obama administration’s more active role. In the middle of the second round of negotiations the US hosted a miniature G-20 summit behind their table, or a ‘G4’ where the US, EU, Developed Nations, and China tried to hammer out a deal. A EU representative found the website for the climate model and she was attempting to solve the problem for their maximum benefit while still trying to keep to 2deg C. She quickly reached a conclusion and then led her group in refusing to budge from their initial bargaining position. Though their initial position was fairly aggressive with its targets, the rest of the class did not agree with their inflexibility. Their inability to write their position on the board correctly also was met with shouts of displeasure from the other delegations.

The larger class also made for some more entertaining shenanigans. China, apparently unsatisfied with their ‘G4’ deal, changed their position on the board after seeing the other’s contributions to the Green Climate Fund. The room exploded in shouts, 30-40 students were pointing at each other while watching the transcription of positions onto the chalkboard. India and the US got into a shouting match with a representative from India saying, “We’re just trying to feed our people!” and the US representative throwing up his hands saying, “I’m just telling you what we need to have happen, man.” The Developing Nations, sitting on the ground in front of the board, snuck in to change the Green Climate Fund, adding a zero to a group’s contribution. The game builds in tension, and having to stretch it over multiple periods dissipates that tension, unfortunately.

Neither class solved the problem, but they got to 2.4 °C and both had 100-110 billion dollars in the Green Climate Fund. That’s far better than the real negotiations, as they’ve gotten us to 3.4 °C and ~10 billion. The quick influx of money makes it apparent that the students do not really fully understand the massive sums of money that are required within that fund, as they rather quickly built that up. From a purely gaming standpoint, the goal of the Green Fund is that the Developing Nations require massive capital investments to skip over the fossil fuel age. If the US, EU, and Developed Nations add money in too quickly, then the leverage for the Developing Nations is gone. It misses the difficulty of trying to decarbonize the developing nation’s economy.

At the end, there’s a discussion of why peaking emissions now is key to solving the problem, how the Green Fund money gets distributed, among other aspects. After I talked for a bit I had them talk through their positions, if they had individual goals while engaging in the game. This didn’t really work, but it did give me a chance to talk about the differing US positions in the different classes.

Assessment

I had all the students write answers to three prompts:

1. What did you learn?

2. How do you feel?

3. What actions will you take?

We then passed the cards around so that each student passed cards 5 times, essentially making their card anonymous. They could then say their own comment or their card’s comment.

In the 60-student class it became quickly apparent I was being ‘trolled’ by the comments the students were choosing to share, which made the conversation fairly negative. It started as comments about the EU delegation refusing to negotiate, and then quickly turned to quoting the Trump administration’s position on the Paris Agreement (which would have been a good teachable moment, but I admittedly was flustered), followed by comments about how time could have been better spent reviewing for their final. Classes have their own energy, and that section had moments of general antagonism throughout the semester, though usually minor, so I should have been better prepared. I think with practice this portion could be engaging and useful, but it requires the facilitator to be ready to handle a variety of comments and to reposition the comments quickly. While I like having the activity come at the end of the semester, it does lend to a stressed student body.

The other, smaller, class had a much more genuine response. I expect a big portion of their genuine response was because of a statement from an international student prior to the card writing. She described how the activity had been gratifying, having been in the country during the Obama administration and seeing the change to today’s administration. She described the tone of the American diplomacy abroad these days, and described it in reference to the US position in the game we’d just played. That class was also more good-natured in general. They brought up empathy, and how they learned about needing to peak emissions early, for example.

Student response cards:

  • I don’t know what actions I could take.
  • I think the world is screwed.
  • I feel kind of scared with how our countries are handling climate change.
  • 1. We need to get our sh*t together. 2. Scared for our future. 3. Be more conscious.
  • How do you feel? Absolutely exhausted.
  • I learned that no matter how much we try the world is screwed because of climate change.
  • 1. From this I learned that this world is dying. I don’t like how sh*tty it is. 2. Sh*tty about how many people may or may not die.

37% of the cards were what I categorized as nihilistic or frightened. This is, frankly, not an unexpected response to an activity like this. I spent a lot of time talking about impacts in order to impress upon them the importance of engaging with this activity. Some of the folks in this group however, saw that this was a problem and said “It will take a lot more money to fix these climate problems. Not worth the money.” They also stated that they felt “Fantastic”. While that was one particular student, one might expect that statement from a more conservative audience. I attempted, in the moment, to describe the economics of climate change as a loan we take out that our children have to pay back with considerable interest, I’m not sure that analogy really stuck.

Some of these cards are also a peak into a group of students who are interested in the issue, however do not know what to do. While we talked about various responses to modern climate change, I am very wary of appearing like I’m advocating for a particular action. Many of the cards state the students are unsure of actions they individually can take, or that individual actions are ineffective. This is a particular point that I will try to address in the future, to describe the nature of climate as a collective action problem requiring that individuals, yes, do their part, but that the onus of action needs to be on governments to enact and enforce legislation.

What did you learn:

  • I learned how important these issues actually are. Our world is strongly impacted and if there is no change we will be drastically hit with consequences. How do you feel: Lost for words at the fact that the US is truly hated. What will you do: I will try to take part in the change.
  • I learned about the view of points of an outside nation towards the US, this experience gave me a chance to look from the outside in. I also have a better understanding of world climate, and how to go about finding a solution. I will continue to find ways to go green and continue recycling and not litter.
  • 1. That several nations really can’t help as much simply due to the amount of poverty in their nation. 2. That it will take more open minded plans to actually make a serious difference. 3. I will try to keep my mind open to interpretation of how other countries function and operate.
  • I learned that the developing nations make a big difference with their changes. I feel frustrated and disappointed. I will talk more about the issue. Look for petitions folks.
  • I learned that getting all of the countries to come together is damn near impossible. We don’t care about each other enough. We need to see the bigger picture that is all of us as a whole. Be the change you want to see in the world. Live as green as possible.
  • I feel if we [are] to really understand each other and realize we need to have the same goal to better our world, we would come together.
  • I learned that if we don’t start making changes right now, developing countries will be at risk. I feel motivated to make changes. I will try to reduce my CO2 emissions and advise others to do the same.
  • I feel so small.

The last group is the most optimistic. While there is considerable anger expressed by the group, they wrote about the need for a group solution, and expressed frustration that it was so difficult for people to actually ‘care about each other enough.’ These are the folks that want to accomplish something to positively effect their lives. It’s roughly a third of the class. Given the pre-class surveys that I gave them at the beginning of the semester, there’s considerable movement on student interest in climate change and their desire to engage with solutions.

Advice for employing this game:

Make sure you have something to have a positive action they can take with their new desire to fix the climate. I have not solved that problem given the classroom setting, but I hope to by this time next semester.

10 students in each group is probably as large as I’d go with students. I know there are modifications for large groups in the facilitator guide, so check there if you have large sections. I think having a larger “Other Developing Countries” block and forcing them to negotiate within themselves before bringing their position to the UN would be fascinating, but too complicated.

Build a case for optimism. I had a lot of students walk out of that room without hope. That’s counter productive, when the goal of the activity is to give them an understanding of the scope, a feeling that they’re in this with lots of others, and then a guiding hand in what they can to do help in their way.

Inequity is key. While it may seem like a small detail, making the developing countries uncomfortable, and the US/EU feel like royalty adds tension.

The first round requires a decent amount of learning on the fly. While both sections caught on quickly, 5-10 minutes of additional time in that first negotiating round is very useful.

Be prepared for an adversarial comment within the ‘debrief’ period if this is an in-class activity. While the vast majority of the comments that I looked through were supportive of the activity, there are several that think it was a waste of time. Such is the nature of having 90 students engage in a, sadly, politically controversial game.

The main advise I have, however, is to do this. It is a phenomenal way to engage a class in learning about their world, and what is happening to it.

Dr. Heather L. Ford, Paleoclimatologist

Dr. Ford sampling marine sediment that was brought up from the bottom of the seafloor.

What do you do as a geoscientist?

I’m a climate scientist interested in past archives of climate change. I explore warm climates of the past to help understand future climate change. I look at the ocean’s role in moving around heat and carbon in the earth’s system.

What is your data, and how do you obtain it?

I work on marine sediment from the bottom of the ocean. Within this sediment are tiny fossil shells, the size of a single grain of sand. The chemistry of these fossil shells, formed by protists called foraminifera, can be used to reconstruct temperature, ice volume, carbon chemistry, and many other properties of the ocean. In the laboratory, I chemically clean these shells to remove contaminants and analyze them by mass spectrometry. Using the minor and trace elements of these shells I’m able to reconstruct climate conditions from a warm period approximately three million years ago, the Pliocene warm period, when atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are estimated to be similar to today with human inputs.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of climate change?

My research contributes to our understanding of climate change by understanding the most recent period of sustained warmth. One focus of my research is to understand the tropical Pacific Ocean through time and how it influences global climate. The importance of the tropical Pacific is exemplified by the ocean-atmospheric changes during an El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) event which alters global climate. Today, the tropical Pacific is characterized by a western warm pool and an eastern cold tongue. The thermocline, the uppermost layer of the ocean within which temperature decreases rapidly with depth, plays a critical role in this tropical Pacific temperature pattern and ENSO development. During the warm Pliocene, records show the eastern tropical Pacific was warmer than today. My research shows the thermocline was deep which contributed to the warm temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific. This altered tropical ocean-atmosphere dynamics which we call El Padre (figure below).

What is your favorite part about being a scientist?

I’ve cultivated a group of phenomenal collaborators that I enjoy working with. We ask questions that are relevant to future climate change and are inspired by each other’s dedication.

What advice do you have for aspiring scientists?

Take a programing class! I started coding in graduate school and although I am by no means a master coder, I’ve been able to explore datasets and examine relationships in climate data.

To learn more about Heather’s research, you can follow on her on Twitter here or visit her website

Witnessing a Murder: Snorkeling the Great Barrier Reef

Adriane here-

A view of Queensland and its coastline in northeastern Australia (inset image). The Great Barrier Reef is the long feature, highlighted by the white lines, that stretches along the coast. Images from Google Earth (2017).

Last summer, I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the scientists to sail on the International Ocean Discovery Program Expedition 371 to the Tasman Sea (read more about my adventure here). The ship we sailed on, the JOIDES Resolution, left from the port of Townsville, Australia. Because I was already flying to the Southern Hemisphere, my husband and I decided it was the perfect opportunity to take our delayed honeymoon (we had been married two years at that point, but better late than never!). We stayed on Magnetic Island, located right offshore from the city of Townsville for a week, sight seeing, koala-petting (Queensland is one of the few places in the world that allows you to pet wild koalas), and snorkeling.

A rare sight: An on-the-move koala family on Magnetic Island.

Being a naturalist and animal-lover, I have quite a lengthy bucket list. One of the items on that list was to snorkel the Great Barrier Reef. Lucky for me, the reef was just a 2 hour boat ride from Magnetic Island! My husband and I signed up months in advance for a snorkeling adventure on the reef, and we were both extremely excited about it! I prepared for the snorkeling adventure by doing extensive research on the reef, learning species of corals, fish, and sharks that are common on the reef, and also what human-made products (such as sunscreen) were harmful to the reef so we could avoid using them the day of our snorkel. But I also had to prepare myself mentally for what I knew was unavoidable: witnessing a reef community in peril.

Lodestone Reef, a small reef part of the Great Barrier Reef that we snorkeled.

Before I explain, allow me to dazzle you with reef facts. Reefs all over the world are amazing places (OK, this is probably more of an opinion, but I’m not wrong, right?). They are home to a huge number of animal species, all who interact with each other. Reefs themselves are defined by the community of corals, fish, crabs, etc. that live together. Reefs are located in warm, shallow, clear waters, and that is why they are found in tropical waters. Reefs occur all across the world, but the biggest and most impressive reef, by far, is the Great Barrier Reef. Check out this Google Street View of Heron Island, Great Barrier Reef to see some of the wildlife and coral species that live on the reef.

A colony of healthy table coral with striped damselfish swimming about.

The Great Barrier Reef (I’ll refer to it as the GBR from here) stretches 2,300 kilometers (1,430 miles) along the Queensland (northeastern Australia) coastline. It covers about 344,400 square kilometers (132,974 square miles) of area, which is approximately the size of 70 million football fields, or the size of Italy. Because of its size, the GBR is visible from space, and is listed as one of the 7 wonders of the world. Together, the GBR is made up of 2,900 individual reefs, and contains 600 continental islands. It also includes about 300 coral cays (cays, or keys, are small sandy areas located near a coral reef) and ~150 mangrove islands (mangroves are an important plant that live along coastlines; their roots offer protection for small fish and animals and help stabilize the soil in which they grow).

The reef itself is home to over 1,625 fish species, which accounts for ~10% of the world’s fish species! The fish rely on over 600 species of corals for protection and shelter. Over 133 species of sharks and rays also inhabit the reef, feeding off fish. Sea snakes slither their way across the reef, with about 14 different species found in the GBR. 30 species of whales and dolphins also visit the warm, clear waters of the reef to raise their young every year. Of the 7 species of marine turtles alive today, 6 can be found in the GBR. Thus, the GBR is a true natural treasure, with its beautiful marine life, vibrantly colored corals, and abundance of geographic features.

A solitary (one animal that lived by itself rather than in a colony) horn coral, one of the earliest species of corals from the Ordovician. Image from the Digital Atlas of Ordovician Life.

Corals first appeared in the rock record ~548 million years ago during the Cambrian Period. True reefs didn’t make an appearance until about 100 million years later, during the Ordovician Period. These reefs were very different from our reefs today, but the point is, they have survived all 5 major mass extinctions  in Earth’s history, and have become extremely successful. But all of that is changing today with global climate change. Reefs all over the world are in dying because of us, humans. It is estimated that from 1985-2012, about 50% of the GBR corals have died (De’ath et al., 2012).

Global climate change caused by humans expelling carbon dioxide (CO2), a greenhouse gas, at an accelerated rate is the leading cause of coral reef decline. As our atmosphere warms, our oceans are also warming. The oceans absorb about 93% of atmospheric heat. Although corals thrive in warm waters, they have a very narrow temperature tolerance (most can live in waters no less than 64 degrees Fahrenheit, and no more than 84 degrees Fahrenheit). When waters become too warm for the corals, they become extremely stressed. Prolonged stress leads to coral bleaching events. This occurs when corals expel the algae, called zooxanthellae, that live in their tissue. The zooxanthellae are what give corals their colors, so after expulsion, the coral turns white. Corals can survive without their zooxanthellae for a short period of time, but if they don’t return, the coral then dies. Check out this page and graphic by NOAA to understand more about coral bleaching.

My husband swimming next to a healthy community of various coral species. Some of the corals at Lodestone Reef are enormous, which indicates the coral is probably decades old.

Coral skeletons are made of calcium carbonate, or calcite (CaCO3). This mineral is also what bivalves and gastropods make their shells out of, so it is commonly found in reef environments. As humans pump more CO2 into the atmosphere, the oceans not only absorb heat, they also absorb this CO2 (about 30% of the CO2 released by humans has been absorbed by our oceans).  When CO2 is dissolved in seawater, it creates biocarbonate ions, carbonate ions, free hydrogen ions, and carbonic acid (read more about this process on our ‘Ocean Chemistry & Acidification‘ page). The amount of free hydrogen ions, H+, are what causes ocean waters to become more acidic or basic. An increase in H+ ions leads to the ocean becoming acidic, whereas a decrease in H+ ions leads to more basic waters. So as the oceans absorb more CO2, they become more acidic. Calcium carbonate, what corals make their skeletons out of, dissolve in the presence of acid. So not only are the corals stressed from increased water temperatures, it is also harder for them to grow and build colonies because they are dissolving in increasingly acidic waters.

Elkhorn corals in various stages of bleaching at Lodestone Reef. The fleshy-colored coral at the top of the image is healthy, the white coral directly under it is bleached, and the dark coral with bacteria feeding off the dead animal is at the bottom of the image.

I was well aware of the effects of global climate change on reef communities before I snorkeled the GBR (at this time, one of the worse coral bleaching events was taking place), but I had never seen the effects of human life on the reefs up close and personal. When we jumped off the boat (which was aptly named ‘Adrenaline’) at Lodestone Reef, I was instantly blown away by the wildlife swimming all around me. Sea cucumbers, starfish, and fish were everywhere, as were several species of coral! Elkhorn coral, brain coral, and species of table coral were abundant all around us. I was in total and absolute awe.

But it didn’t take long to find stressed, dying, and dead corals. Healthy corals are vibrantly colored, while some are flesh-colored. Stressed corals experiencing bleaching events are white, and those that are dead appear black. Dead corals will also have wispy bacteria hanging off the skeletons, as they are feeding off the decaying flesh of the animal. My heart sank faster than an anchor thrown overboard when I first witnessed the stressed, dying, and dead corals. Here I was, in the midst of the world’s largest, most wondrous reef, and it was being decimated. Suddenly, I was overcome with guilt: Guilt at not living a more earth-friendly lifestyle, guilt at not talking about the effects of climate change and its effects on reefs more to my students and the public, guilt that humans are carelessly destroying our Earth’s most precious resources. I was, in fact, witness to one of the largest, most extensive mass murders taking place in my lifetime: the death of our coral reefs.

But I’m not one to end on a sad note; rather, I’m hopeful that we can help our reefs (and all marine life) rebound from the damages we have incurred. There are several organizations that are committed to protecting the Great Barrier Reef and reefs all around the world. Some countries have created fishing restrictions and regulations for their reefs to protect the fish and marine communities that inhabit them. The Paris Agreement, a coalition of over 195 countries, was created in 2015 to  curb global CO2 emissions (as of writing this post, the U.S. is still a member of the agreement, but has plans to withdraw by November 2020). Scientists are gathering data on our reefs to quantify how fast they are responding to climate change, and are also working with aquariums to regrow species of corals for release back into the wild. As an individual, you can contribute to protecting our reefs in quite a few ways. First, you can actively vote for government officials that have a track record in supporting science and curbing CO2 emissions. Second, recycle. Most of our trash ends up in the oceans, and that leads to another set of problems for marine life. Third, you can reduce the amount of plastics you use in your daily life by refusing straws at restaurants, using reusable bags, baggies, and containers. Fourth, reduce the amount of time you spend driving a car. Instead, take public transportation, ride a bike, walk, or carpool with friends and family. All of these activities reduce your carbon footprint. Lastly, you can donate to foundations and organizations that work to protect our reefs. 

Here’s a list of foundations and organizations that are committed to protecting our reefs, and places where you can find additional information about reefs:

 

 

 

Dragons and Dinosaurs at the Museum!

Adriane here-

A few weeks ago, the local group I volunteer with, Jurassic Roadshow, participated in an outreach event at the Springfield Museums in Springfield, Massachusetts. Every year, the museum chooses a theme and builds educational events and activities around the theme, which lasts an entire week. This year’s theme was Dinosaurs and Dragons, as the museum was showcasing its fossil collections (including dinosaurs) and the collection of art featuring dragons.

The Archaeopteryx toy used along with the dinosaurs vs. dragons activity to highlight the differences between dragons (mythical creatures) and dinosaurs (extinct animals). Photo by Sarah Doyle.

When I volunteer with Jurassic Roadshow, I usually set up about two tables full of fossils from the major geologic eras so people can see the different groups of organisms that lived during the Paleozoic, Mesozoic, and Cenozoic. But this outreach event was different: I was tasked with creating a display and/or activity that incorporated both dinosaurs AND dragons! I’m no mythical creature expert, so I was a bit perplexed as to what I could do to tie into the museum’s theme.

Solveig and I talking to the public about the dinosaur trackways preserved in Massachusetts. Photo by Sarah Doyle.

Inspiration struck when I visited a local toy store (paleontologists LOVE toy stores, especially one with lots of dinosaur figurines) and found Tyrannosaurus rex, Archaeopteryx, and dragon toys. I bought one of each and took them back to my lab. Next, I found a mythical dragon skeleton drawing online, along with scientific drawings of T. rex and Archaeopteryx skeletons (check out the awesome paleo art by Scott Hartman) and positioned them next to one another on a small poster. Then, I wrote down observations and features of the dragon skeleton, and did the same with the dinosaurs. I printed these onto cards so that kids could label the correct features on each organism. This way, they could see the major differences between dragons and dinosaurs and begin thinking about how we identify and name the animals we find in the fossil record, and why we interpret dinosaur fossils as dinosaurs, and not dragons.

Gini Traub assisting kids with breaking rocks. Photo by Sarah Doyle.

The day of the event, I took my student, Solveig, with me to the museum. We set up our table with a few representative Paleozoic and Cenozoic fossils, then made a larger display of Mesozoic fossils with the dinosaur vs. dragon activity. In addition, I also took an articulated (complete and together) pigeon skeleton and eagle skull with me to show the public the transition from dinosaurs (T. rex) to more bird-like dinosaurs (Archaeopteryx) to modern birds.  As if this weren’t enough, we also took ~150 oyster fossils and ~20 ammonite fossils from the Cretaceous (~90 million years old) to give away to kids.

Professor Steve Winters from Holyoke Community College assisting young scientists with their microscopes! Photo by Sarah Doyle.

The biggest hit of the day at our table was the dinosaur and dragon toys. Younger kids automatically picked up the T. rex and engaged it in an epic battle with the dragon (one enthusiastic patron informed me the dragon I bought was a European dragon). We made certain that every kid (and adults!) left our table with an oyster or ammonite fossil. Several families engaged with the dinosaur vs. dragon activity, and most kids found it fun to point out the differences between mythical and real creatures.

Getting a close look at modern bugs, bird skeletons, and corals. I used modern organisms to talk about how these animals are threatened today by climate change. Photo by Sarah Doyle.

Other Jurassic Roadshow volunteers who attended the event also had tables with activities for visitors related to the geology and paleontology of western Massachusetts. A professor from Holyoke Community College brought along several mineral specimens and microscopes so people could look at them under high magnification. Other members brought representative rocks from around the valley, hammers, googles, and hand lenses so kids could break the rocks and look at the minerals under the lenses (this was also a huge hit, pun intended). Another volunteer had two tables full of fish fossils from the Triassic-aged lake that once covered parts of western Massachusetts. One table included dinosaur-themed crafts for kids to make and take home!

As usual, the day ended with all of the Jurassic Roadshow team content and happy to have shared our love of geology with others. Although these outreach events do take time, I love participating in them, as it’s a way to connect with the public, practice and sharpen my science communication skills, and be visible to other youngsters who may, one day, decide to become a scientist.

Bridget Wade, Micropaleontologist

Professor Bridget Wade

What is your favorite part about being a scientist, and how did you get interested in science?

The best part of my job is my interactions with students. I feel very fortunate to have a group of masters and doctoral students working in the lab on various projects that focus of climate change, evolution and improving the geological time scale. Many of the students are international and have different research backgrounds, and thus I get to learn about different cultures as well as benefit from unique insights that they have to science. I also really enjoy how every day is different, and I get to look down the microscope at extraordinary fossil plankton from millions of years ago.

Science wasn’t my first choice – I originally applied to university to study English Literature, but my grades weren’t good enough! So this was a big turning point, but in retrospect I’m really glad that I couldn’t take that path. These days I spend much of my time reading and writing, so perhaps these worlds are not so far apart.

How does your research contribute to the understanding of evolution and climate change?

I use microscopic marine plankton and their chemistry to determine how the oceans have changed over the last 50 million years. I’m particularly interested in how life responds to climatic change and what drives a species to extinction.

What are your proxies, and how do you obtain your data?

Scanning electron microscope images of planktonic foraminifera from the about 14 million years ago (middle Miocene). Image from Fox and Wade (2013).

The microscopic fossils I work on are called planktonic foraminifera. These are about the size of a grain of sand. Their shells are made of calcium carbonate and over time the shells of dead foraminifera accumulate in marine sediments and yield a long fossil record, which we can use to gain information on oceans and climate of the past. I use cores obtained through the International Ocean Discovery Program. Core samples taken from the ocean floor can help form a picture of climate changes which took place millions of years ago. I use the foraminifera to examine changes in evolution and extinction rates and mechanisms in different time intervals, and use their chemistry, such as oxygen and carbon isotopes to reconstruct changes in marine temperatures, track glacial/interglacial cycles, and productivity through time.

What advice do you have for young, aspiring scientists?

Find your passion, focus on the aspects that you enjoy the most and have fun!

The Importance of Mentors and Advisors Through My Academic Career

Helping to bring in a core aboard the RV JOIDES Resolution, Summer 2017. It took many years of training and several awesome advisors for me to get to this point in my life, where I could participate in super cool science and be a confident researcher!

Adriane here-

I wouldn’t be where I am, academically speaking, if it weren’t for a couple factors: my stubbornness, drive to succeed, love of fossils and learning, and support of my family and advisors. But here, I want to talk about how important my advisors have been and still are in my academic life.

I’m a first-generation student meaning that neither of my parents have a Bachelor’s degree or higher. Since grade school, I knew I would attend college, as my mom never said ‘If you go to college…‘; rather, our conversations regarding my education began with ‘When you go to college…‘.  As I grew older, I knew college/university wasn’t the only career path for me, but to attain my goals and dreams, I knew I would need to one day go to graduate school. But first, I had to get through high school and an undergraduate program.

I had a hard time in high school, as I was constantly bullied for being the shy, quiet nerd. I didn’t really fit in anywhere, and every chance I got, I skipped class to go ride our horses. Predictably, my grades suffered. By the time graduation rolled around, I knew I didn’t have the GPA to get into college; in addition, I had no idea what I wanted to do. So, I began taking classes at my local community college, and long story short, I fell in love with geology as soon as I took my first class. By the time I graduated magna cum laude from community college, I was accepted into James Madison University in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley of Virginia.

At first, I felt out of place, as everyone in the Geology department at JMU knew one another and had formed friendships.  I felt like an outsider, a feeling that was amplified by being a first-generation student and a transfer student. Luckily, I wasn’t the only one: other students in my program also came from community colleges! Still, my confidence in my ability to conduct science and be a great student were low. University classes were a different type of beast compared to community college courses, and the pressure was on.

As I moved through my geology program and took more classes, my confidence started to build. As a student in the Geology department, I was required to do undergraduate research. I was both excited and nervous about this, but knew it was going to be a challenge that would make me a better candidate for graduate school. By the second year into my degree, I had taken a paleoclimate and paleontology class. I absolutely loved both, and wanted to do a research project that included fossils and revealing something about our Earth’s oceans. The opportunity arose when one of the department’s professors, Dr. Kristen St. John, sent out an email with an opportunity to construct a foraminiferal biostratigraphy from deep sea sediments in the Gulf of Mexico. I leapt at the opportunity! I still remember the day I approached Kristen to tell her I was interested in conducting research with her. I think my face got red just talking to her, and I had to convince myself for a good 10 minutes that I should talk with her before I actually did.

Kristen (left) and I at my first Geological Society of America meeting. Here, I was presenting my undergraduate research.

I did start doing research with Kristen, and it went extremely well! I loved learning all the different species of foraminifera, and would spend hours at the microscope. I remember one day, Kristen came into the lab and told me I was working and researching like a Master’s student. I was over the moon excited to hear this, because it gave me hope that I would, and could, succeed in graduate school! Kristen was a very encouraging advisor, meeting with me weekly to chat about research and helping me find relevant papers. She, along with our department head Dr. Steve Leslie, even took me to the United States Geological Survey in Reston, VA one day to meet with a planktic foraminifera specialist! After this, Kristen introduced me to her good friend and collaborator, Dr. Mark Leckie, at University of Massachusetts Amherst. I was able to go to UMass as an undergrad and work with Mark for a few days to conduct stable isotope analyses. It was an awesome experience, as I was able to network with two scientists outside of JMU. I was, and forever will be, grateful to Kristen for investing her time in me to make me a better scientist and more confident researcher.

By the third Fall I was at JMU, I attended my first big geology meeting where I presented my undergraduate research. It was here that had also set up meetings with potential graduate school advisors. I was still torn between majoring in paleoclimatology or paleontology, so I had contacted professors working in both fields. My heart was set on going to UMass to work in Mark’s lab, but at the time, his lab was full and he didn’t have funding. I was crushed, but carried on. I met with several professors at the meeting, all of whom were encouraging about pursuing an MS degree with them at their university. One of the other professors I met with at the meeting was Dr. Alycia Stigall, who was a friend of my undergrad professor Steve. I sat down with Alycia for about 20 minutes, and instantly liked her (read her ‘Meet the Scientist’ post here).

My last year in undergrad, I ended up applying to about 6 universities for graduate school. I was so nervous that I wouldn’t get in, as my confidence was still lower than most students’. The day I got the email from Alycia that I was accepted in her lab and the Ohio University program as a fully-funded teaching assistant, I cried with joy! I moved to southeastern Ohio the following Fall to start my life as a Master’s student specializing in paleontology. It was here, at Ohio University, that I met Jen.

Me, Jen, and Alycia at an outcrop in Estonia. This was my first international geology meeting.

Working with Alycia and with her other graduate students was an amazing experience. At JMU, I never had confidence in my math skills, but after taking a few classes at Ohio, I was doing statistics and learning how to code. I taught my first paleontology labs, and even helped Alycia create a new class for the department. In addition, I was able to publish my first paper during my first year, and present research at an international meeting. I flourished working alongside Alycia, as I felt totally comfortable in her lab and with her. Most of the other graduate students in the lab were from divorced, low income, and/or conservative families, so we had a lot in common. I didn’t feel like an outsider, and often talked with my lab mates and Alycia about my home life.

But it wasn’t just that I was comfortable at OU, I had a mentor, an advisor, a colleague, a friend, and a role model all in one. Alycia was the role model I needed at this time in my life.  My fiance and I were talking seriously about marriage and about the future, and I wasn’t sure how this would work while I was in graduate school. I was scared that I wouldn’t be able to balance work and life, and moreover, even have a life outside of grad school (at this time I knew I wanted to pursue a PhD). But Alycia assured me I could have both a successful career and home life. She herself was (and still is) amazing at balancing her academic and home life. It was because of Alycia I knew I, too, could be an awesome scientist with a family.

Me, Steve (from JMU!), Steve’s PhD advisor, Stig Bergstrom (me and Jen’s ‘Paleo-Grandpa’), Alycia, and Jen at the geology meeting in Estonia.

By the time I graduated from Ohio University, my confidence was soaring. I knew I could do anything I wanted to, mostly because I had been trained to critically think, problem solve, and had a killer work ethic. That spring of graduation from OU, I had been accepted to the PhD program at UMass Amherst in Mark’s lab (remember Kristen’s friend I worked with from undergrad?). Life has a funny way of working out, as I never thought I would ever get the chance to work at UMass. But here I am!

When I first started at UMass, I was scared to death. I wasn’t as confident my first year at the university as I had been at Ohio University for a few different reasons. First, this was the first R1 university I had attended (R1’s are universities that grant MS and PhD degrees, and generally have large and intense research programs). Second, I felt like an outcast (again) with my slight southern accent, coming from a lower-income family, and being a first-generation student. Third, I had totally switched interests from invertebrate paleontology in the Ordovician (~450 million years ago) to working in the field of Neogene (~15 million years ago) paleoceaonography (although I will always consider myself a paleontologist first before a paleoceanographer). I had a lot to learn, on top of a lot of work. But I persevered, asked a LOT of questions, and continued on.

Conducting field work in Colorado with Raquel and Mark.

Lucky for me, Mark is just as great an advisor as Kirsten and Alycia, something I am very grateful for. When I wanted to go on a scientific ocean drilling expedition, Mark worked closely with me to craft a well-thought out application (I did get accepted, read about my experience here and see above image). He also gave me the opportunity to build and teach an upper-level geology class, an experience that most graduate students don’t get. Through teaching and researching, I have regained my confidence, and know once again that I can do anything I put my mind to.

So, there are a few words of advice I have from my university experiences for any student wondering how they’ll make it in grad school and/or with low confidence:

  1. Find an advisor that you can trust, and that you click with. In my opinion and experience, this was the most important factor when choosing a graduate program and advisor. My close relationship with my previous and current advisors are one of the reasons I’ve succeeded as a graduate student.
  2. Find a mentor. Advisors and mentors are not equivalent. Advisors will help you through your education, but mentors are guides who will help you navigate life. Some advisors are also mentors, while others are not. Other times, mentors come in the form of lab mates and friends. Both advisors and mentors are crucial to survival in graduate school.
  3. Find your people. Make friends in and outside of your department. Being a student is hard, and finding friends to commiserate with and draw inspiration from are essential.
  4. Believe in yourself. This is cheesy, and easier said than done, but change begins with you. When you start being confident in your abilities, you’ll find your confidence will increase over time. Also, reading A LOT of published literature helps here too.
  5. When you are able to, be the mentor/advisor for younger versions of yourself. By helping students from all backgrounds and identities gain confidence in themselves and learn how to conduct research, we can all make STEM fields more accessible and welcoming to all.

Dino Tracks, Conglomerates, and High School Students; Oh My!

Adriane here-

Serena and I with one of the dinosaur trackways. The tracks are next to our hands on the left side of the image.

This post is about an education outreach field trip I participated in a few weeks ago. Usually when I go out in the field, I’m either teaching undergraduate geology majors, or with my advisor and lab mates to collect samples for research. This trip was a totally different experience for me, my advisor, Mark, and my lab partner, Serena: we took 18 high school students on a day-long field trip to three stops in the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts! I was really excited for this trip, as I do not get to work specifically with high school students very often. The group we took out in the field was a science club from Holyoke High School in Holyoke, MA. This group of students was very diverse, with most coming from Hispanic backgrounds, some of mixed race, and several that spoke Spanish as well as English. But it wasn’t their diverse backgrounds that intrigued me the most, it was their sense of community and friendship, how they treated one another like siblings instead of classmates. This made spending time and getting to know the students all the more special, and made for an amazing day out in the field!

Mark explaining to the students how we concluded that this area was once an ancient lake. If you look carefully, you can see fossil ripple marks in the center of the image!

The students started their day with hot chocolate at 8 am before we  picked them up and whisked them outdoors! Our first stop of the day was at the Dinosaur Tracks along Route 5 in Holyoke, MA. Here, over 100 dinosaur tracks are preserved in the Early Jurassic (about 200 million years old) Portland Formation accessible to the public. We talked about the paleoenvironment (the ancient environment) of the area and how the tracks were preserved. In short, the rocks here were deposited along a lake edge, where the dinosaurs would visit for a cool drink. The students were excited by the tracks and the beautiful views of the Connecticut River.

Our second stop of the day was a famous outcrop in the valley called Roaring Brook. This spot is really fun as it’s on the eastern border fault that formed in the Early Jurassic as the supercontinent Pangaea was beginning to rift apart. It was at this spot that the Earth’s crust was pulled apart, causing a block of crust to drop down relative to the blocks to the east and west. This formed the Connecticut River Valley of western Massachusetts as it is known today. Roaring Brook is characterized by massive blocks of igneous and metamorphic rocks that are found beside sedimentary rocks called conglomerate. The waterfalls at Roaring Brook are made of the conglomerate, which the students had a wonderful time climbing over!

The students exploring the conglomerate rocks at Roaring Brook.

After Roaring Brook, we took the students to University of Massachusetts Amherst, where we work, to one of our more famous dining halls. The students loved this (and quite frankly, it’s always a treat for us to eat here, too!), and it gave me and Serena a chance to chat with the teachers.

Our last stop of the day was the Beneski Museum of Natural History at Amherst College. This is one of my favorite natural history museums, partly because it holds the world’s largest collections of dinosaur footprints as part of its Hitchcock Ichnology Collection. The students were given a personalized tour around the museum by one of the curators, where they learned about mammoths, mastodons, sedimentary structures, and of course, dinosaurs!

The students are given a brief overview of the Beneski Museum before looking around. Smilodon (a Pleistocene saber-toothed tiger) is in the foreground.

At the end of the day, I found myself reluctant to say goodbye to the students, and eager to work with them again. Before we dropped the high schoolers back at their campus, we gave them a survey to determine if our field trip was successful (did they learn science, did they have fun) and if they had any suggestions on how to improve future trips. Through this survey, we found out that only a few students had ever been on a field trip. This surprised me at first, as I remember going on field trips throughout my K-12 education. Talking with the teachers, however, gave me a more grim picture: public education funding is limited, and has become more so over the years. This is happening in all public education systems across the country. Teachers’ jobs are becoming harder because of these funding issues, but the real losers in the situation are our students. This field trip made me realize how important working with public school students is, as they and their teachers need all the help and support they can get in these times of public education budget cuts.

Thus, we in the UMass Geosciences department are planning another field trip with the students in the Spring to go fossil collecting in New York. Ideally, this will lead to a long-term partnership between the science educators in public school systems and our university.

Editing Science Chapters

Adriane here-

The sign in front of the IODP building in College Station, Texas, on the Texas A & M University campus.

Last summer, I participated in a scientific ocean drilling expedition (check out my previous posts here and here). More simply, I spent two months on a ship in the Tasman Sea, recovering sediment cores from the seafloor. We drilled the newly-named continent of Zealandia to determine the geologic history of the now-submerged continent. I sailed with about 30 other scientists from different backgrounds, which means that we learned a ton from the cores we recovered and learned  a lot from one another.

But all this new knowledge is useless if it isn’t written up and available to other scientists. So while we were on the ship, we wrote up our findings in documents we call ‘Site Chapters’. A site is what we call each new location where we drill. The scientific results from each site will eventually be published into chapters available online to the public.

While we were on the ship, the scientists had only a limited time to spend writing up their site chapter sections (every different group on the ship contributes a different section to the chapter; for example, as a paleontologist, I was only responsible for writing up the chapter section that deals with fossils). This writing time-crunch often leads to good, but not great, writing and figures. Thus, there comes a time after the expedition when some of the scientists that sailed together meet up for a week and thoroughly edit all the chapters.

At one point, I was working on our Biostratigraphy sections with two laptops! Thankfully, we were supplied plenty of snack and coffee to keep us motivated, as we had to be alert and pay attention to every little detail while editing!

At the end of January, the science party, including myself, met at Texas A & M University in College Station, TX. The university is home-base to the International Ocean Discovery Program (IODP), the program through which our expedition was organized and funded. Not all the scientists attend this ‘editorial party’, as only about 1 to 2 scientists from each group are needed. For example. there are two paleontologists (myself and another researcher from Italy) out of the original ten paleontologists that sailed working on the fossil-specific section for our site chapters. All in all, there was about 12 of us edition our chapters.

We spent 5 days in a room together, with access to all of our files and figures that we typed and created on the ship. In the room with us were 4 support staff, whose sole job it was to support us in any way they could. For example, they helped us edit figures, they gave us access to additional files that we needed, and they edited our chapters for grammar and spelling. The support team also formatted the chapters to a very specific style.

Beautiful echinoderms stuck in the limestone building blocks on the campus! Yes, I did try to get them out; no, I was no successful.

So why spend all this time on editing, drafting, and formatting a bunch of science-y stuff? There are several reasons! First, all IODP expeditions are paid for via taxpayer dollars, so the science that we do at sea and our major findings should be made available for public consumption. We anticipate that our chapters will be published online, available to everyone for free, in February 2019. Second, there is a diverse group of scientists that sail on the ship, and thus a diverse (and global) following of other scientists that are interested in what we did and what we found while at sea. Publishing our finding lets others interested in our science know what we collected, the age of the material, and if there is anything they could possibly work on in the future. The chapters also serve as a record and database (there will be an online database of findings as well) for others.

Editing is hard work, so it was important to take regular breaks and have some fun. Luckily, the weather was warm (or at least warmer than in Massachusetts) and sunny! Our lunches were catered everyday, and a few of us often went on walks around campus. Lucky for me, the limestone blocks that are used as walls around campus were filled with fossils, which provided me plenty of entertainment!