Archive for April, 2019

Warming at the Third Pole – A New Record of Climate Change from Kashmir, Northwest Himalaya

April 28th, 2019

The Wooster Tree Ring Lab collaborated on a publication describing the recent thermal history of the Lidder Valley, Northwest Himalaya. Dr. Santosh Shah, the lead author, is a multitalented paleoclimatologist at the Birbal Sahni Institute of Palaeosciences in Locknow, India. He and his colleagues led the study that appeared in Climate Dynamics and is titled: A winter temperature reconstruction for the Lidder Valley, Kashmir, Northwest Himalaya based on tree-rings of Pinus wallichiana. Here is the abstract from the study:

Abstract: A regional, 175 year long, tree-ring width chronology (spanning 1840–2014 C.E.) was developed for Pinus wallichiana A. B. Jacks. (Himalayan Blue pine) from the Lidder Valley, Kashmir, Northwest Himalaya. Simple and seasonal correlation analysis (SEASCORR) with monthly climate records demonstrates a significant direct positive relationship of tree growth with winter temperature. A linear regression model explains 64% of the total variance of the winter temperature and is used to reconstruct December–March temperatures back to 1855 C.E. The most noticeable feature of the reconstruction is a marked warming trend beginning in the late twentieth century and persisting through the present. This reconstruction was compared with instrumental records and other proxy based local and regional temperature reconstructions and generally agrees with the tree-ring records and is consistent with the marked loss of glacial ice over the last few decades. Spectral analysis reveals a periodicity likely associated with the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation and El Niño–Southern Oscillation. Spatial cor- relation patterns of sea surface temperatures with the observed and reconstructed winter temperatures are consistent with larger scale warming in the region.

Map showing the location of the study in the Lidder Valley in Kashmir, Northwest India.

The rivers of the Lidder Valley are fed by glaciers from the Himalaya, which are becoming increasingly impacted by climate change and population pressures. The people within the valley depends on the water from the rivers and managing the water in this rapidly warming region is an increasing challenge. The results in this work show the increasing pace of the recent warming (see figure below).

Temperature reconstructions (above) based on tree-rings for the Himalaya. The curve on the top is from the new publication. 

Dr. Shah is now working on using tree-rings to reconstruct river flow in the region. This is work that he presented last year at World Dendro in Bhutan and which we are are also collaborators. We are grateful to Dr . Shah for introducing us to climate change research in the Himalaya AND for his help to our former students of the Wooster Tree Ring Lab.

Jeff Gunderson,  who recently completed his masters thesis at The Ohio State University in Geography used tree-rings from the Peruvian Andes to reconstruct climate. Jeff collaborated with Dr. Shah who shared his computer code and guidance in calibrating his Peruvian tree-ring records.



New paper: Borings from the Silurian of Sweden — possibly the oldest deep-boring bivalves

April 27th, 2019

It was a delight to be a junior member of the team that produced this recent paper:

Claussen, A.L., Munnecke, A., Wilson, M.A. and Oswald, I. 2019. The oldest deep boring bivalves? Evidence from the Silurian of Gotland (Sweden). Facies 65: 26.

This may be the first paper for me where I’ve not yet met my co-authors. They are all from the GeoZentrum Nordbayern, Fachgruppe Paläoumwelt, Friedrich-Alexander Universität Erlangen-Nürnberg, Erlangen, Germany. This is where our recent graduate William Harrison is a graduate student. (He is clearly having a wonderful time there!)

Our team leader was the remarkable Lene Claussen. She did a prodigious amount of working and thinking for this study, which combines many of paleontology’s most recent tools, from isotopic analysis to micro-computed tomography. The abstract give us a synopsis of the story —

Abstract: Compared to modern counterparts, bioerosion is rare in Paleozoic reefs, especially macro-bioerosion. The unique and enigmatic Silurian reefs from Gotland (Sweden), composed of bryozoans and microbial laminates, show evidence of a large amount of bioerosion. The samples contain Trypanites trace fossils, as well as a large number of undescribed macroborings. Small articulated bivalve shells are preserved in some of these macroborings, identified from thin-sections. Three-dimensional images from micro-computed tomography (microCT) reveal an additional bivalve, which is occupying a bioerosion trace. This specimen is possibly contained in a different boring that can be classified as possibly clavate-shaped. Furthermore, evidence of nestling, such as a subsequent modification of the ichnofossils, the presence of bivalves that are much smaller than the trace, or the presence of additional specimens, is missing; therefore, it is most likely that the bivalves made the borings. This is evidence for the existence of deep-boring bivalves in the Silurian.

Top image is from Figure 3: Bioerosion traces from Nors Stenbrott, boreholes with bivalve shells in thin-section; a lateral cut through a bivalve shell (sample P3); b lateral cut through a bivalve shell (sample P13B).

From Figure 6: Processed three-dimensional microCT images of different boring traces from Nors Stenbrott, Trypanites borings in blue and the unknown ichnofossil in green; a all contained boreholes from sample SNS1; b all contained boreholes from sample Z9A, boring with bivalve with arrow.

I learned a great deal from this study and my new colleagues, especially about new techniques and the surprises they can reveal. Thank you, Lene and crew.

Making Intellectual Connections: An education steeped in liberal arts forms excellent preparation for an environmental career

April 26th, 2019

Dr. Wilson suggested I contribute to the blog following my February 2019 presentation on Environmental Challenges Facing the Department of Defense.  So I have worked up the following missive.  If the audience, especially students and recent graduates, find it of value then I may develop further contributions.

William K. Burris, P.G.
Environmental Restoration Program Manager
U.S. Air Force Civil Engineer Center


Geology consists of a unique synthesis of the other sciences.  This curious blending of chemistry, physics, and biology forms one of the many reasons why Geology makes such an interesting topic of study.  Environmental Science, especially as it impacts and involves humanity, exhibits similar traits to geology is this respect.  However environmental science not only consists of a synthesis of the sciences (including geology) but also incorporates a hefty dose of history, economics, psychology, and other numerous disciplines that swim in the somewhat undefinable pool of topics often labeled as “liberal arts.”  As I have looked back on the many types of environmental projects I have completed in my admittedly checkered career I find it surprising how often I needed to pull from my liberal arts tool box to get the job done rather than from the tool box labeled with “science.”

I currently serve as an Environmental Restoration Program Manager for the Air Force Civil Engineer Center.  I clean up old Department of Defense messes, contamination in groundwater, old landfills and dumps, munitions, and old spills.  My supposed years of experience and education in hydrogeology, contaminant chemistry, and technical expertise in drilling methods, well construction, and groundwater sampling ostensibly play a primary role in this effort.  Alas this is not the case as I spend the majority of my time addressing the bureaucracy, establishing budgets, developing correspondence, and negotiating with regulators.  In this heavily bureaucratic context, a reliance on the liberal arts over hard science is understandable.  Yet, looking back over to the times when I served as an environmental regulator and a private sector consultant, roles that should ostensibly be more technical in nature than my current role as middle management Mugwump in a bloated federal bureaucracy, success there also depended on the disciplines commonly considered as liberal arts.

First off, and hopefully obvious to any Wooster geologist, the importance of effective writing cannot be overstated.  Report writing, correspondence, white papers, bullet point briefs, regulatory guidance, and regulatory rule making are just some of the forms of text based communication that form the lexicon of environmental literature to which I have contributed over the years.  Yet there is one type of document I wish to call out in particular that requires writing skills that pull from disciplines beyond science.  In all likelihood any environmental professional must, at some time, prepare that ultimate blend of science and art, a proposal.  I argue that no other document forces the author to not merely express their technical and scientific acumen, but actually sell it.  The technically precise but often dry text of academic prose will not withstand the needs of a winning proposal.  The narrative tools of the novelist, the marketer, maybe even the poet will often provide the textual punch needed to power a wining proposal.

Bear with me as I digress a little and relate a conversation I had with a Principal Engineer of environmental consulting company I was working for part time while in graduate school.  He told me that to succeed as an environmental consultant you had to excel at three things, at the technical aspect of the work, at managing the projects/business, and at salesmanship.  Failure at anyone of these aspects results in failure as a consultant.  A great manager and salesman that cannot get the technical work done fails.  Technical success cannot offset failure to manage a project or business and you lose money.  Fantastic technical work and brilliance at getting it done on time and within budget is all pointless if you can’t get someone to hire you.  Now think about how much an education outside of the sciences would serve you in these diverse but interconnected roles.

Fear not if you find yourself falling short in some of these skills.  Ideally you will fit in as part of a team that together successfully addresses the need for all of them.  However, think about all three aspects as you look to proceed in your own future professional development.  The “typical” career arc in environmental consulting flows from technical work to project management to business development (aka sales).  Let’s take a look at my super simple, super stylized, super useful diagram below.

A. Represents Technical/ Science Effort
B. Represents Project/Business Management
C. Represents Business Development/ Sales

When you first start work (near the origin of the time scale) most of your effort will be expended as a field grunt or scientist.  Your work will focus more on technical functions and report writing (A).  As your career progresses (near the middle of the time scale) you should find yourself spending the majority of your effort managing projects and working with project budgets (B).  The senior (near the end of the time scale) members of a consulting company are managing operations but mostly chasing more work (C).  Notice however in the diagram you never really get away from all three types of effort.  Even the most junior scientist should be focusing some effort on business development and marketing.  As you steer your own professional education and development, whether through or outside traditional academics you will want to keep ahead of these curves.  First work on developing your technical skills, then work on your project and business management, and finally work on understanding your market and how to sell your services to that market.

Now let us focus on a more specific example of how the other “liberal arts” and their role in the life and career on an environmental scientist or environmental geologist.  Let us look at the baseline work, the basic bread and butter of the environmental consultant trying to forge a career in this marketplace.  Let us examine the Phase I Environmental Site Assessment and all of the “liberal arts” that are required to complete this most fundamental of environmental products.

What is a Phase I Environmental Site Assessment (often referred to as just a “Phase I”)?  Ah yes… the long-winded but otherwise correct answer to that question reaches back to dark days of 1970s, and Love Canal, and the Valley of The Drums.  It involves legal principles such as “innocent landowner defense” and “all appropriate inquiries.”  It essentially forms the topic of another completely separate blog post, one that I may write in the future for the interested, but not here and now.  A simpler but far less correct answer consists of the following; a Phase I is prepared for a prospective landowner to ensure they are not about to unknowingly purchase a Superfund site.

So how does one determine if a property is potentially a Superfund site?  A Phase I consists of a site visit, interviews of those with knowledge of the property, reviews of regulatory records, and historical research.  The site visit is the one portion of the project where technical knowledge plays a major role.  Examining the property for evidence of buried waste, old vent pipes from long forgotten underground storage tanks, stains from spills, inspection of hazardous materials or waste storage areas, review of on-site records, a cursory look at what the neighbors are doing, all very straight forward and simple.  For the rest of the work you need to set aside the science and put on some other hats.  You need to conduct interviews with occupants and others familiar with the property.  So play the role as a speech communications/ public relations/ psychologist now.  You may need to go through deeds and records at the courthouse as well as regulatory records so put on that lawyer hat.  Finally you must start digging into site history, old maps and directories, aerial photographs, other records if and where you can find them.  So you are a historian as well.  The final product is synthesis of all these sources of information.  Science plays a role in the production, but so do many other disciplines.

Soil staining and underground storage tank vent pipe at the Brandywine DRMO site, one of the many observable signs at the site that led to its being designated a National Priority List (aka Superfund) site.

Now let’s step back and take a broader view of the environmental challenges we face as a society, climate change being an outstanding example.  I ask you, is the failure of numerous policy initiatives to address climate change at a national level a result of some failure in climate science?  Of course not, there is no failure in the science.  The failure stems from politics, from an inability to persuade or influence minds, from entrenched business interests, from legal and legislative inaction, from manipulation of the media and numerous other factors.  These cannot be overcome by science alone.  Change will come from an understanding of psychology and economics, history and political science, and most importantly persuasive communication in all its forms.  You will need to be more than a scientist to effective in this sphere, you will need to well steeped in the many and varied disciplines that are considered “liberal arts.”

Birthplace of the Sandusky River

April 6th, 2019

I’ve long appreciated river confluences where two flows join to make a third, “new” river. The most impressive confluence I’ve visited is where the Bhagirathi and Alaknanda Rivers meet to produce the iconic Ganges at Devprayag, India. (The second image in the Wikipedia article is mine.) Of course, such places are only changes in our human geographical classifications. It is a subjective decision to determine which confluence merits naming a new river or stream, essentially marking its “birthplace”.

Today Nick Wiesenberg, his father David, and I had a delightful hike through Lowe-Volk Park in Crawford County, Ohio — about an hour’s drive west of Wooster. Within this small park Paramour Creek and the smaller Allen Run join to make the Sandusky River, as shown above. The Sandusky River then flows about 130 miles north into Lake Erie. The Sandusky has played a critical role in 18th and early 19th century Ohio history, so it was a privilege to visit its origin. The weather was perfect for a short hike in the woods.

Lowe-Volk Park was established around this confluence and three 19th century quarries in the Berea Sandstone, a massive Upper Devonian unit used throughout northeastern Ohio as a building stone. The quarries are now eroded walls of bedrock slowly being covered by vegetation.

As always on trips like this, Nick and David teach me many new things. For example, I knew honeylocust trees are festooned with nasty, long thorns, as you can see on this trunk. What I didn’t know was that these defensive structures evolved in response to animals no longer around — mastodons!The thorns on the honeylocust trunks go as high as a mastodon could reach, and no more. This was apparently part of a coevolutionary relationship in which the trees had no interest in being pushed over by these pachyderms for their delicious seedpods while they were still ripening on their branches. After the seedpods matured and fell to the ground it was to the benefit of the trees for the mastodons to eat them and pass the seeds through their guts for planting elsewhere, hence their sweetness. Now the thorns mount a defense against lumbering ghosts.

Speaking of ghosts, this area was a bloody battleground numerous times, most notably in 1782 at the end of the Revolutionary War. The painting above hangs in the park visitor center. It shows Colonel William Crawford leading an American military expedition against Indian tribes living along the Sandusky River. The Indians, and their British allies, were well informed about this attempted surprise attack and beat it back decisively, giving the name to the fight “The Battle of Sandusky” or “Crawford’s Defeat”. Crawford himself was captured very near the present park. He had a gruesome end in captivity, which was a response to previous atrocities on the part of earlier American raiders who did not, ironically, include poor Colonel Crawford.