Bad Geology Movies: The Day After Tomorrow, 2004

The Day After Tomorrow


Dennis Quaid, Jake Gyllenhaal

Premise: When the world’s ocean circulation patterns are disrupted by melt water due to global warming, the Earth is plunged into a sudden ice age.

There’s a fair amount of good in this movie, and a fair amount of hoo-hah as well. I’ll focus on the Earth Science problems that I have at least a little expertice in. I’m not a meteorologist, so I can’t say a lot about the huge storms that play an enormous role in the movie (though I suspect they fall into the category or hoo-hah).

Ice core drilling: This is, in fact, a common means by which we have learned a great deal about Earth’s past climate. And we can go back ten thousand years quite easily. The ice-coring set-up that they have is quite unlike any I’ve ever seen, and I really don’t think any intelligent scientist would be coring on an ice shelf, but for the sake of a movie… ok.

A two-century long ice age that started 10,000 years ago: There was a substantial climate change that occurred ten thousand years ago. It was warming, though, not an ice age that lasted 200 years. This was about the time that humans found themselves in North America and was also about the same time that all the cool ‘megafauna’ went extinct (like mammoths, mastodons, woolly rhinos, ground sloths, etc.) There is a great deal of debate over whether it was the appearance of humans or this climate change that did in the megafauna.

Greenhouse gasses from ice cores: This is actually a commonly used research track by paleoclimatologists. In fact, we have two such scientists in our tiny department here at the University of Rochester. Atmospheric gasses are trapped in snow which is later buried and turns to ice in the massive glacial sheets of the Arctic and Antarctic. These gasses can be retrieved and studied, providing information about past concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere.

By the way, we can assign ages to different parts of ice cores by simply counting annual rings. During the winter, snow tends to be clean, but in the summer there tends to be a lot of dust in the snow. Each year, then, there is a layer of clean ice and dirty ice in an ice core. We can count these (like tree rings) to know the age of a part of an ice core. Pretty cool, eh?

Ocean circulations: What the main character says about the disruption of ocean currents by the introduction of fresh water (from melting ice sheets), which then leads to climate change is actually an accepted hypothesis. It has been put forward by Wally Broeker, one of the most respected paleooceanographers in the world.

Unfortunately, the movie does make a mistake here. Not a severe one, but I’m sure Wally himself would facepalm. They talk about the North Atlantic Current – which is a real thing – being shut down by all the meltwater. The North Atlantic Current is a surface current in the ocean. It is the continuation of the Gulf Stream, which runs north along the eastern margin of North America. The Gulf Stream plus the North Atlantic current is what keeps the climate of Europe so pleasant despite being so far to the North. Surface currents, like the North Atlantic Current, are driven by wind.

If you look at the drawings that the main character of the film is referring to, as well as Wally Broeker’s work, you’ll realize that the currents that would be disrupted by the freshwater are not surface currents at all. While it might affect the North Atlantic Current, the influx of meltwater would more likely disrupt the deep ocean currents, called “Thermohaline Circulation.”  These currents are driven by differences in temperature (Thermo-) and salt-content (haline) of the water. Saltier water sinks, as does colder water. This global circulation keeps the ocean water mixed from north to south and from ocean to ocean. An influx of freshwater from melting glaciers in the north and south would stop the downwelling in those areas, which would disrupt this circulation. This, it is widely accepted, could have a profound effect on global climate.

The ocean’s deep currents.

Water inundating New York City: This is a head-scratcher. Sure, if sea-level rises, then water could rush into the city. And now, post Hurricane Sandy, we know that water can make it quite a ways into the city. There is a lot of water tied up in the world’s ice sheets, too, so an immense sea level rise is not out of the question if we melted all of the ice. But the converse is true, too. In an ice age, sea level can drop because all the Earth’s water is tied up in ice sheets at the poles. Somehow, I suspect that these two competing phenomena would have prevented the great wall of water that struck New York in the movie. But it was pretty cool to have a massive ship floating in front of the library, eh?

Only storms in the Northern Hemisphere: Was anyone bothered by this? Why wouldn’t there be enormous storms in the Southern Hemisphere too? How come Australia gets out Scot-free? This actually might not be that big of a problem. It seems that the great ice ages did not affect the Southern Hemisphere in the same way as the Northern Hemisphere. There were no huge ice sheets in the south. Part of this is because there really isn’t much land mass in the south. There are some tall mountains that even now have glaciers that may have expanded during the northern ice ages, but it seems that “ice ages” as we think of them were a primarily northern phenomenon. There’s active research on that topic going on right now. So it’s possible that a new ice age might only affect the Northern Hemisphere.

 An ice age in a week? I think this is fundamentally the biggest problem with “The Day After Tomorrow.” The premise is ok, and the idea that run-away greenhouse gasses could cause major climate disruptions isn’t that far off, but that an ice age can begin and coat much of the Northern Hemisphere in ice in less than a week is a unlikely. Years is a better scenario, and we’d probably have a little warning. Can can observe the flow of the thermohaline currents. We’d see them stopping most likely. Alas, I don’t think that there’s a thing in the world we could do to re-start the flow should it stop. Climatic disruption is the most likely outcome.

Frankenstorm and the Isotopes

Earlier this week, Hurricane Sandy (an anomalous late-season hurricane) made landfall in the United States near Atlantic City, NJ (also anomalously far North). Because of the timing of Sandy (near Halloween), and it’s coincidence with another strong system moving across North America from the West, the weather event was given the moniker “Frankenstorm”.

This storm was a big deal, and my heart goes out to everyone adversely affected by its aftermath. My own heart broke with each image the popped up on my Twitter-feed that night. Yet there were some heartwarming stories, and certainly some good will come from this unfortunate event.

Much of the discussion of Sandy revolved around how unusual it was and how it might be related to global warming. I even got a call from a local journalist wondering if I would be willing to comment on that. (I said no, because it’s really outside of my realm of expertise, but hopefully might be contacted later regarding ancient episodes of global warming which really are my specialty.) There are plenty of web resources on the topic, which cover that question better than I can. This is one of my favorites.

This is all interesting, but is not why I was kind of excited about Sandy (in the way only a geochemist can be). For me, Sandy provides an opportunity to verify what we think we can learn about ancient weather patterns using chemical tracers in rocks. That is, Sandy is a natural isotopic experiment. I’m not the only person who thought this. Gabriel Bowen of the University of Utah thought of it first.  I’ll explain below.

Before you get upset about the term ‘isotope,’ remember that all atoms are isotopes and that not all isotopes are radioactive. Most atoms are ‘stable’ meaning that they don’t undergo radioactive decay. It’s just that the term ‘isotope’ makes people think of nuclear reactors and meltdowns (and somehow Homer Simpson).

So then, what do I mean by an isotopic experiment? I’ll save the details of how isotopes work for a later blog post, and just start with a simpler story of just water. Different isotopes have different masses, or weights. Most water molecules have a weight of 16 atomic mass units. Let’s just say most water has a mass of 18. Some water molecules have a mass of 19, where one of the hydrogen atoms is ‘heavy’ (but stable) and some molecules have a mass of 20, where the oxygen atom is ‘heavy’ (but also stable).

When the mass of the molecule is heavier than most (19 or 20 versus 18) the molecule is, well, heavy! That means that if water evaporates, the lighter (mass 18) molecules evaporate first, because they’re lighter, leaving the heavier water (mass 19 and 20) behind in the puddle. This seems very common-sense, and it is. Vapor that evaporates from puddle is lighter than the water that remains in the puddle and, in fact, the remaining water gets heavier. This process is called fractionation.

Now, if we have a bunch of water vapor, like a cloud for example, and the vapor condenses, the heavier water condenses first and falls as rain (because it’s heavier). The rain is heavier than the vapor in the cloud and the cloud’s water gets lighter and lighter as it rains more. Again, this is fractionation.

When we’re talking about isotopes, we use this crazy delta notation. If we want to say something about the oxygen isotopes in water we use δ18O. For hydrogen, we use δD or δ2H. The number we report is really a ratio, but we tack on the permil symbol (‰) to make the numbers easy to talk about (again, this is something to talk about later). What’s important is that if the delta value is more positive, that means that the water is heavier. If the delta value is more negative, the water is lighter. Everything is measured relative to ocean water which has been assigned a delta value of zero for both hydrogen and oxygen. δ18O = 0‰ and δD = 0‰ for ocean water.

A hurricane, like Sandy, gets all its water from the evaporation of the ocean – so the clouds forming over the ocean will have delta values more negative than zero. As long as the storm is over the ocean rain from the hurricane and falls back on the ocean and new water evaporates keeping the isotopic value of the clouds stable. But once the storm moves over land, the addition of new water vapor from the ocean stops, but lots of water is lost as rain.

The result is that as a storm moves across the landscape, the isotopic value of the cloud gets lighter and lighter over time. The precipitation coming from the cloud also gets lighter and lighter over time, though it’s always heavier than the cloud it came from.

This is called Rayleigh Distillation, and is one of the basic concepts in isotope geochemistry. It seems pretty straight forward and reasonable, and has been used as the basis of isotopic interpretation for many years. But it’s been difficult to test… Until now. With electronic messaging and, more importantly, social media, it is now possible to recruit a fleet of people of a broad geographic area with only a few hours notice to collect rain samples that can then be measured for their isotopic values. We can finally ground-truth this important hypothesis!

This was tried for the first time with a storm called “Snowzilla” (now less creatively called the ‘Groundhog Day Storm’) that happened in 2011. Snow fractionates from clouds just like rain does, so would be expected to show a similar isotopic pattern as rain water. When this huge storm that hit much of the eastern United States, and Gabriel Bowen, then at Purdue University, put out a call for people to collect snow samples and send them to him. The results are detailed here.

The pattern of hydrogen isotopes from the Groundhog Day Storm in 2011. Warmer colors represent isotopically heavier water.

Looking at the figure, we see that the isotopic values shift from more positive in the southeast to more negative in the northwest. From this, it’s easy to see that the vapor moved in from the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.

What might we expect to see from Sandy? Well, this time when the call went out, Dr. Bowen asked participants to collect samples over specified time intervals and to record those times, meaning that it will be possible to make an isotope movie and perhaps watch Sandy move across the continent.

So… Why does this matter? Oxygen isotopes from rain can be preserved in rocks. As rain water is exposed to carbon dioxide and percolates through the soil, it forms carbonate (CO32-)which is then bound into carbonate minerals like calcite. This calcite can form little nodules in the soil or a calcrete layer. The oxygen in the carbonate records the oxygen in the water (with a little more fractionation). Later – as in millions of years later – geoscientists like me can analyze the oxygen from the carbonate and get back to the original distribution of oxygen isotopes in the rain water. From there, we can then figure out ancient air-flow patterns around the world.

With this knowledge, we can start answering other questions. How does the uplift of high mountains (like the Himalayas) affect global air flow? What happens to air circulation when climate changes rapidly, whether it be warming or cooling? We can address these questions and more, which might help us understand what the future might bring if projections of warming bear out.

In the meantime, I’m a participant in the project myself and am still collecting waters. Sandy’s not quite dead, though her destructiveness is well past. We’ll see what the data tell when all is said and done!


Here they are: the sample set from my house. I’m done sampling, so the analyses can begin!

Nine rain water samples I collected for the isotopic study of Hurricane Sandy.


Published: Global Warming 55 Million Years Ago

This is the first installment of my attempt to convert a scientific paper (my own) into plain language that is accessible to everyone. Feel free to ask questions in the comments. I’ll respond there, or with additional blog posts.

Climate change at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary: New insights from mollusks and organic carbon in the Hanna Basin of Wyoming.

By Penny Higgins

Published in PalArch’s Journal of Vertebrate Palaeontology

v.9 n. 4, p. 1-20

Link to the complete technical version: PDF


There is a lot of interest in climate change these days, especially global warming. Especially if that global warming can be blamed on increasing amounts of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. The problem is that it’s hard to know if the trend toward warmer temperatures (at least the global average) is due to natural cycles of the Earth or due to increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide because of the burning of fossil fuels by us, or if there is even a relationship between increasing carbon dioxide and warming (maybe increases in both are coincidence, but not not due to some causal relationship).

This paper doesn’t make any arguments to support or refute any ideas about modern global warming. However, it is relevant because it explores a past episode of rapid global warming. This ancient event took place about 55 million years ago. Global average temperatures might have increased by as much as 10 degrees, and did so relatively rapidly (over about 10,000 years). It is suspected that this rapid warming was due to the release of massive amounts of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

So the warming of 55 million years ago seems similar to modern warming in being rapid (though not as rapid as in the modern scenario) and being potentially blamed on increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. In this paper, we assume that the warming at 55 million years ago did happen, lasted about 150 thousand years, then things cooled back down to more-or-less where they had been before. For the sake of this paper, it doesn’t matter what caused the warming, only that it was.

This warming event began at the boundary between two epochs on the geologic time scale: the Paleocene and the Eocene. We call this event the Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum, or the PETM.

The Paleocene-Eocene boundary is actually defined based upon the onset of warming, as identified by a big change in the relative amounts of two isotopes of carbon (13-C and 12-C) in the atmosphere, and consequently in all organic material that was deposited at that time. How we measure these amounts and what the actual numbers mean are the topic of another paper or blog post. What’s important is that these relative amounts, or isotopic ratios, are presented in what we call the ‘delta notation’ (like δ13C, δ15N, and δ18O) in units of permil (‰). When delta values are more negative, there’s relatively more 12-C in a sample; when delta values are more positive; there’s more 13-C in a sample. The PETM, then, is recognized by a negative carbon isotope excursion (CIE), where the delta values suddenly drop by three to five permil. The PETM ends when carbon delta values go back to what they had been before the CIE started.

Much of what’s known about the climate change at the PETM, and the Earth’s subsequent recovery, is known from cores of rock and sediment collected from the ocean floors. Naturally, we’re interested in what would happen to us – those of us stuck on land. In the Hanna Basin, in south-central Wyoming, there is a sequence of rocks that began to be deposited before the PETM started, and continued to be deposited during the PETM and after the PETM. These rocks were deposited on land and are sediments from lakes and floodplains. In these lakes and small rivers were living lots of organisms, in particular, mussels. There was also a lot of organic material being deposited – so much so that now it is represented by many thick coal seams that are actively mined.

Location Map showing where the Hanna Formation lies

This sets up a scenario where we can use the organic carbon (from the coals) to identify the CIE, and therefore the Paleocene-Eocene boundary and the PETM in a terrestrial rock sequence. Then, we can look at the fossil mussels, and other things, to examine the environmental changes that happened during and after the PETM. The main questions, and ones that are relevant to modern concerns about climate change, are:

1) after the warming ended, did the environment go back to its original state or was it forever changed?

2) what effect did climate change have on the organisms that lived through it?


First, let’s look at the rocks. The Hanna Formation, the rock unit I’m studying, is about three kilometers thick (or about two miles). The part we care about is in the top half. The bulk of the Hanna Formation is composed of sediments deposited on floodplains, with little shallow streams that wound around (called fluvial). There are two parts of the Hanna Formation that have lake beds in them (called lacustrine), cleverly called the upper and lower lacustrine units (ULU and LLU). The focus of this study is on the upper and lower lacustrine units and some fluvial rocks in between them. I had reason to suspect, when I started this study that the Paleocene-Eocene boundary lies between the lacustrine units. This is borne out in this paper.

The Hanna Formation – its total thickness and where the study section is

It turns out that is wasn’t very easy to identify the CIE (and therefore the Paleocene-Eocene boundary) in the Hanna Formation. The delta values from the coals and other organic materials jump around a lot, probably because the organic carbon I was looking at comes from lots of different types of plants, all of which are slightly different isotopically. One conclusion of this study is that we need to do more ‘compound-specific’ work. That is to say, if we can isolate specific organic molecules and analyze them separately from everything else, that should make the carbon isotope values less variable. Unfortunately, the type of instrument and laboratory that’s needed to do that isn’t present here at the University of Rochester. I’m working on it.

Nevertheless, in general where the values are more negative than -26‰, you’re in the CIE. To help make it more clear, I used a three-point running average of the raw carbon isotope data. This tends to smooth out the line, while keeping the big jumps visible. The first major jump into more negative values occurs at about 2500 meters, which coincides with estimations made using mammal fossils and fossil mollusks by others who have worked in the Hanna Formation before.

When I compared this overall pattern with other published patterns of carbon isotope variability (some from ocean cores and some from terrestrial sections), things matched up pretty nicely. Using pattern matching, I placed the top of the CIE (and the end of the PETM) at about 2650 meters, which is in the lower part of the upper lacustrine unit. This means that the 150 thousand years of the PETM are represented by about 150 meters of rock in the Hanna Formation, or that a meter of rock was laid down every 100 thousand years. This is actually reasonable – no one in the geological sciences is bothered by this rate of deposition.

Carbon Isotopes from the Hanna Formation, showing the CIE and the location of the LLU and ULU


Now that the CIE is identified, I could begin to address the environmental changes that might have occured during that period of warming. I approach this in two ways:

1) Looking at isotopes of nitrogen – which gives us information about the organisms from which the organic matter is coming (e.g. we can distinguish between a stagnant pond or a lively lake).

2) Looking at isotopes of carbon and oxygen in the mussels that have been collected – which can give us information about annual changes in the environment that the mussels lived in.


Most of the organic molecules that go into coal also have nitrogen in them, though not as much nitrogen as carbon. Usually, when looking at fossil organic carbon, the amount of carbon is so low that there essentially is no measurable nitrogen in the samples. In the case of the Hanna Formation, though, we have coal, which is basically ALL organic carbon-bearing molecules. That means that there’s some hope of finding measurable nitrogen, and that’s what I did.

So really, this part of the study was basically done for giggles – just to see if I could do it. And once I had data, well, I had to interpret it.

There are two ways to think about nitrogen. One is to simply compare how much nitrogen there is relative to carbon (C/N ratios). A second is to look at the ratios of two isotopes of nitrogen, 14-N and 15-N. C/N ratios give us information about the origin of the organic molecules (from algae or land plants, for example) and the isotopic ratios tell us about status of lake, whether it be full of actively photosynthesizing plants or if it is stagnant.

Using the combination of C/N ratios and nitrogen isotopes, it seems that for the most part the organic carbon in the lakes of the Hanna Formation is dominated by land plants. So these are leaves and litter that were washed into the lakes. One interesting isotopic data point sits at the bottom of the CIE. From this point, it seems that there was might have been drying of the lake at the beginning of the PETM. That would make sense, assuming that warming could cause greater evaporation.


The work with the mussels is actually been the topic of two undergraduate senior theses that I’ve advised. They’ve been doing some great work to look at the annual changes in isotopes by collecting multiple samples from single shells, following growth lines, to put together a picture of environmental changes that happened during the individual animals’ lives. I don’t say much about that work in this paper. That’ll be published later. What I do talk about is trends. I’ve taken the averages from individual shells and used those to look at how the isotopes of carbon and oxygen from the shells change over time. I also talk about how carbon and oxygen isotopes change relative to each other within a single shell.

Mussel Shell – dashed lines show where isotopic samples were collected

So, how are carbon and oxygen in the shells of mussels, you ask? Mollusk shells are made of calcium carbonate (CaCO3) which contains one carbon and three oxygen atoms. We collect powdered bits of the shells by using a dental drill and take this powder and put it into the mass spectrometer. The calcium carbonate is converted to carbon dioxide (which is easily measured by the mass spectrometer) by reacting the powders with acid. You put acid on the calcium carbonate, it fizzes, making carbon dioxide, which is drawn into the mass spectrometer and – wango! – we have carbon and oxygen data.

Carbon in mussel shells is thought to be derived mostly from carbon dioxide that has been dissolved in the water, and so should track the isotopic value of atmospheric carbon dioxide. Atmospheric carbon dioxide, as mentioned earlier, gets more negative during the CIE then returns to the pre-CIE values. The average values from the shells seem to follow this trend, so there’s no surprises.

But now we’re talking about yet another isotope: Oxygen. The isotopes that we measure are 16-O and 18-O. Isotopes of oxygen are a big topic of discussion when dealing with climate change. That’s because oxygen is an important component of water, and water is an important component of climates. For example, climates can be described as arid or humid. There can be rainy seasons or monsoons. Precipitation can take the form of rain or snow. All of these processes affect the isotopes of oxygen in water. Temperature also affect oxygen isotopes. Unfortunately, isotopes of oxygen in water are a very complex system, and would best be discussed in a separate blog post. What is important is that there isn’t any obvious trend in the average values of oxygen from the shells over time, either.

Since oxygen is affected by climate, one would expect that there should be some change if there’s been a significant climate change. However, because oxygen is so complicated, the changes in oxygen isotopes by changing one part of climate (the time of year when it rains, for example), might be offset by other changes (like a change in average temperature). The fact that there isn’t any obvious trend or change in oxygen isotopes over time doesn’t mean that there wasn’t any change in climate.

And we do see a difference when we compare the variations in carbon and oxygen within a single shell. Carbon and oxygen in shells from the lower lacustrine unit (before the PETM) tend to change in opposite directions (or are negatively correlated). When oxygen isotopic values get more positive, carbon isotopic values get more negative. Shells in the upper lacustrine unit show the opposite pattern. Carbon and oxygen values change in the same direction (are positively correlated), so when oxygen gets more positive, so does carbon. From this, it’s possible to infer that before the PETM there was a lot of vegetation and photosynthesis going on around the lakes, whereas during the PETM, photosynthesis might have slowed down during the warmer months and bacteria might have dominated life in the water. This seems reasonable since in the upper lacustrine unit there are also huge fossilized bacterial mats called stromatolites.


So that’s what this paper is about. We see some evidence of environmental change due to warming at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary. Particularly, we have the one really positive nitrogen isotopic value near the base of the CIE and we see a change in the relationships between carbon and oxygen isotopes in individual mussel shells during the PETM as compared to pre-PETM.

One thing that hopefully is obvious however: there is more work to be done.

The work with nitrogen isotopes started with a shot in the dark. More samples should be analyzed. There’s definitely more work to be done there.

My students’ work on the mussel shells will greatly contribute to this as well. Since I wrote this paper, there have been more shells collected and more samples analyzed. That work needs to be wrapped up and published soon.

We really need to do that ‘compound-specific’ work I mentioned earlier to help clarify the CIE. It’ll also help clear up what sorts of plants were around at that time, so we can better interpret the nitrogen data.

Also, though not discussed at all in the paper, is the fact that there are paleobotanists out there looking at fossil leaves and pollen. There’s a story to be told there, and someone’s getting a Ph.D. For their efforts. I can’t wait until that work is done!

On Introspection and Writing

This last year has brought a lot of change into my life. Call it a mid-life crisis if you want, but certainly I am changed over who (or where) I was last year.

In April of last year one of the most significant events of my life occurred. That was when my son received the diagnosis of PDD-NOS. What’s that, you ask? In a nutshell, it means that the boy has autism (or is autistic, or whatever is politically correct). He’s a high-functioning autistic, but does not quite fit the diagnosis of Asperger Syndrome.

Anyway, what’s important here is that this diagnosis, while disappointing and sometimes difficult to cope with did help me accept that my child’s strange behavior is not due to any failure of my own. My parenting is fine. The boy is just different. I hadn’t realized it, but the feeling that the boy’s ‘differentness’ was somehow my fault had been weighing so heavily on me that it affected everything. I was depressed. I gained weight. I faltered at work. I faltered at home, with my marriage, and everything. I felt like a failure all the way around.

Everything changed with the boy’s diagnosis. I did go through an initial stage of mourning: the boy would never be the person that I had originally thought he might be. But once I got past that, things improved.

I suddenly dropped fifteen pounds of weight. I just quit eating as much. Apparently, I am a comfort-eater. Yeah, I am. Yum. Candy. This then turned into me beginning a regular fitness program. At this point, I have lost nearly thirty pounds, and am fitter than I was even as an undergraduate athlete.

My relationship with my husband also improved. Sure we still have some rocky moments, but that’s natural. We celebrated ten years of marriage last year. And we still like each other. That’s pretty good.

Somehow, the boy’s diagnosis enabled me to allow myself to take time for my own interests. I discovered that I really like sewing, and have now made for myself, my husband, and the boy several costumes with at 14th century flair. I’m working on new costumes for the Ren-Faire circuit this summer.

What’s perhaps the most substantial revelation I’ve gotten in the last year is that I actually like to write. Yeah, who new. I’ve hated writing for years, or so I’ve thought. The truth is, I hate technical writing. It’s stale and stunted. It’s all posturing and jargon. (And I’m not the only one who’s realized this!) It’s not my natural mode of communication.

Last November, I joined the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) and started, for the first time ever, to write and share with others one of the many stories I’ve had drifting around in my head. Well, I easily met the 50k word goal of NaNoWriMo, but the book was (and still is) hardly complete. With this writing, I discovered that I absolutely loved writing. Just not technical writing.

Well, I’m still working on the book (Knights of Herongarde), and still costuming, and feel great for it. Recently, a blog post inspired me to do more writing. It seems that there is a call for scientists to start making their work accessible to others, and blogging seems to be the best way to do this. So, I’ve started adding blog posts about my research. I hope that readers here have enjoyed them. There will be more.

I’m about to embark on another project that will involve a lot of writing. Writing in my preferred style, not the stunted, formal style of technical journals. It was suggested to me while in California that there does not exist a popular-press book on the basics of geology. Given my preferred style of writing, I might be the person to prepare such a book.

There are books on the geology of specific places, but nothing like “Geology for the masses,” semi-technical books that a person could grab and take with them anywhere where rocks are exposed and get something useful from it. Well there are a few out there, most notably one in the “For Dummies” series. Many are geared toward children, and far too many (the prettiest and glossiest and the ones that are on top of the Google search for “Geology book”) are creation science books touting the 6,000 year-old Earth. *gasp*

This is in marked contrast to books on dinosaurs, for example, where you can choose from any number of great titles, written at a level accessible to both children and adults, all written by prominent authors and scholars. These books mix technical jargon with pretty pictures and fantastic facts that attract scholars at all levels. I myself have several of these books on my own shelves and refer to them when teaching about dinosaurs in my own classes.

So why don’t such books exist for the science of geology? Maybe because it is a very broad topic? Maybe because most geologists don’t consider promoting their science to the general populace necessary? Maybe because the average person thinks that there’s not much to geology, so a whole book devoted to it would be pointless.

Well, that last person is missing out on a fantastic science. A lot of people are. So I’ve decided to take on this project. And I think my personal style of writing and the use of this blog lend themselves to the greater project. My goals in doing this work are the same as they are when I teach “Introduction to the Geological Sciences”:

1) To leave the reader/student with basic knowledge that *wherever* they go, whether rocks are exposed or not, there will always be something geological for them to recognize and enjoy.

2) To turn the reader/student into an informed citizen. Far too often, geology is given short-shrift in the media, and the average person is entirely unaware that within geology are important answers to questions related to climate change or other environmental disasters (like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, or last year’s earthquake in Japan). My goal is to demonstrate the relevance, so that when policy decisions must be made, people can choose appropriately.

The ‘book’ will be written section by section, topic by topic, where each section is sufficient for a single blog post. In the end, the book will be put together by stitching each of the sections together in the correct order.

This accomplishes two things. One, it lets me take my time writing the book. I can write a section or two a week, but a whole book in a year is a little daunting. Two, by using the blog it allows some peer review and more importantly, open access, which is a huge topic in the sciences these days. Read about it. Maybe I’ll blog about it. Eventually.


And now for something completely different…

This recent post reminds me that I ought to be using this blog for good, not just for shameless self-promotion (although self-promotion can be fun). I need to promote science, its importance and utility. And, of course, how fun it is!

So I think I’ll start adding blog entries about my current research, what it is, and why it matters. Anyone interested?

Current projects include:

  • Body temperature in giant ground sloths. (You can do that?)
  • Paleobiology and dietary preferences of giant (1000 kg) rodents in South America. (Yes, Rodents of Unusual Size do exist!)
  • Tooth mineralization patterns and their relationship to diet in notoungulates (extinct endemic mammals from South America).
  • Continental environmental change associated with rapid global warming at the Paleocene-Eocene boundary (55 million years ago).
  • Late Cretaceous vertebrates from Axel Heiberg Island. (yeah, in the Arctic)
  • Less-is-more: Using bulk isotopic analysis from tooth enamel of fossil mammals to predict yearly patterns of temperature and precipitation.
  • Mid-Paleocene mammals and reptiles, and species turnover due to climate change 60-ish million years ago
  • Cheek tooth (molar) mineralization patterns in mammoths. (Everyone uses tusks! <eyes rolling>)

If you’re interested in any of these things, let me know, and I’ll write about them. I can also write about day-to-day life as an non-tenure-track isotope geochemist, in a rigorous research-heavy earth-sciences department.

Let me know!