Fieldwork should be safe and welcoming for all. Currently, it’s not.

A post by Chris RowanHow prevalent is sexual harassment and assault during fieldwork? A paper in PLOS One that grapples with this question is getting some justified attention in the press and online at the moment, and the answer is of concern to anyone who works in a field-based science like geology. In the paper, Kate Clancy and coauthors Katie Hinde, Robin Nelson and Julienne Rutherford present ‘the first systematic investigation of field site work environment and experiences, particularly as they relate to sexual harassment and assault’. The results, from interviews of more than 600 people working in 32 different field-based disciplines[1] are not pretty:

  • 64% of all survey respondents stated that they had personally experienced sexual harassment.
  • Over 20% of respondents reported that they had personally experienced sexual assault.
  • The primary targets of harassment and assault were women trainees[2], and they were predominantly targeted by their male superiors.
  • Few respondents were aware of mechanisms to report incidents, and most who did report were unsatisfied with the outcome.

This is a difficult subject to get totally accurate data on, and the authors acknowledge there are risks of some self-selection in a study based on a voluntary survey (although this cuts both ways: they could be as many or more people choosing not to participate because their experiences were too traumatic, as were motivated to participate because of their experiences). But really, the absolute frequencies are unimportant. They are clearly a long way from being zero, and even one incident of harassment or assault is one too many. Also, whilst this might be the first attempt to systematically study this problem, there is a certain lack of surprise at the outcome which is almost as terrible as the numbers themselves.

This is a serious issue. The very nature of the geosciences, where time in the field is still an essential part of earning your undergraduate degree, and many graduate degrees and later research are fundamentally tied to field work, means that career progression requires women to enter and persevere in environments where they are at measurable risk of experiencing harassment – or worse. If we wish to undo the highly-skewed-to-white-male post-PhD gender ratio in the geosciences (which is measurably worse than in many other sciences), we are not exactly presenting the safe and welcoming culture that will make it happen.

So what to do? Kate Clancy has previously listed some suggested actions, which boil down to:

  • making sure that you know your institution’s sexual harassment policy and reporting mechanism, and ensure that your colleagues and students are also aware of it.
  • Investigating the issue of pre fieldwork training for researchers[3].

This is a good start, but I don’t think it can end there. If our aim is to truly make the climate within our field more friendly to women and other minorities, I don’t think we can sit back and say that because there is a policy and a process for reporting and resolving complaints, we have no other responsibility. Our frontline defence against sexual harassment and assault should not be forcing people to compound the trauma and emotional damage that they have already suffered to bring people to account for their behaviour – with the additional risk of having their reputations and their future prospects in their field damaged, with no guarantee of a good outcome[4]. We can, we must, be more proactive than that. We need to attack this behaviour at its root, by making it clear upfront that it is not acceptable, that a complaint will be taken seriously, and that people who do break the code of conduct will be dealt with harshly. The latter two may require taking an uncomfortable look at our own behaviour and actions: how often are we inclined to turn a blind eye, or brush off troubling behaviour as nothing of consequence? This is a particular risk in the peculiarly intense environment of field trips, which can skew perceptions and standards of acceptable behaviour, whilst simultaneously isolating the vulnerable from their normal support network, and increasing the perceived power differential between students and mentors. Our oversight is dulled, precisely when we should be more vigilant. Perhaps that is something training can effectively address.

I don’t have any easy answers to all this, but what I do know that just as anywhere else, women working in the field have a right to feel – and be – safe and secure. Currently they are not, and the onus is on us to change that. A discussion of how to do so is already taking place within anthropology, as evidenced by this study, and in other field-based sciences like ecology. Geoscientists should be part of this important conversation too.

  1. 4% of the respondents identified as geologists. Overall, the survey was dominated by anthropologists, who were the original targets of the survey, and were more likely to have been reached by the authors’ recruitment efforts.  ↩

  2. Harassment and assault were documented for both men and women, but women were 3.5 times more likely to report having experienced sexual harassment and more than 5 times as likely to report having been assaulted.  ↩

  3. At least in geology, as far as I know, fieldwork risk assessments do not routinely address this particular risk, but there’s no reason it could not be added.  ↩

  4. For example. It’s no surprise that many people do not get to the stage of making a complaint in the first place.  ↩

Categories: academic life, fieldwork

Now you see it, now you don’t: the disappearing and reappearing waters of the River Manifold

A post by Anne JeffersonA post by Chris RowanWe’re just back from a couple of weeks in the UK, which included a week exploring the scenic Peak District in northern England. Interesting geological features abounded from day one, when we took a hike along part of the very well-named River Manifold.

The Valley of the River Manifold, looking North from Thor's Cave. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2014.

The winding valley of the River Manifold, looking North from Thor’s Cave. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2014.

At least, the ‘Manifold’ bit seems apt: the channel is indeed very windy. Where we first started off, though, the ‘River’ bit seemed a bit shaky, since the channel was completely dry. It rather reminded Chris of the dry-except-in-a-once-in-a-blue-moon-flash-flood channels he saw in Namibia. But this is Britain, which has a reputation for being a little more soggy, shall we say (and indeed, the day before it had been raining rather heavily). So where was all the water?

Anne standing in the channel of the River Manifold. No waders required. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2014.

Anne standing in the channel of the River Manifold. No waders required. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2014.

A bit more hiking upstream, and we heard the sound of running water; a bit of clambering back into the river bed, and we saw the rather interesting sight of a fairly full channel of water suddenly disappearing into the ground through a number of sinkholes.

The river caught in the act of disappearing underground into a sinkhole. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2014.

The river caught in the act of disappearing underground into a sinkhole. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2014.

Anne poses next to a sinkhole. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2014.

Anne poses next to a sinkhole. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2014.

There is a geological reason for this vanishing act, which you may have already guessed from all of the light-coloured debris in the channel bed: the bedrock here is made of early Carboniferous (around 325-360 million years old) limestone. Limestone is prone to dissolving when it comes into contact with slightly acidic rain water, creating of fissures, sinkholes, and underground channels and caves that surface water can escape into (regions where the landscape is dissolving and collapsing in on itself like this are known as karst. Also important in this are is the fact that soon after being deposited, the limestone was deformed in the continental collision that formed Pangaea, opening up lots of tectonic joints and fractures that water can also flow into (and probably enhancing the rate of karst formation).

The interesting thing about the River Manifold is that a clear, continuous channel does exist, indicating that at times of very high rainfall water is being fed into the channel at a higher rate than it can drain underground. Not a hard thing to imagine in this part of the world, and recent heavy rainfall might explain why we found the river disappearing some way downstream of some of the sinkholes (also called swallets) referred to in many guidebooks, and this handy Geotrail Guide.

Of course, having discovered where the river disappeared, our resident water nerd was very keen to find where it came back to the surface again. It is commonly stated that it reappears a few miles downstream in the grounds of Ilam Hall, and when we visited it was easy to find a lot of water being added to the channel at an obvious spring (or ‘boil hole’).

Water refilling the surface channel of the Manifold River from a backside spring. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2014.

Water refilling the surface channel of the Manifold River from a backside spring in the grounds of Ilam Hall. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2014.

The view from the opposite bank. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2014.

The view from the opposite bank. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2014.

However, although the surface flow was very clearly a lot more anaemic upstream of the spring than it was downstream, there was still some water in the channel for at least a mile – perhaps also a sign of recent heavy rains, or more minor springs. Still, despite shifting about a bit, the dry section of the Manifold, particularly where it remerges, seems fairly constant, suggesting that the well-formed channel at the surface is matched by a fairly clear ‘Subriver Manifold’ running through the limestone around here as well.

Upstream from the Ilam Boil Hole: not completely dry, but much less water in the channel. Photo: Anne Jefferson, 2014.

Upstream from the Ilam Boil Hole: not completely dry, but much less water in the channel. Photo: Anne Jefferson, 2014.

Both the disappearance and reappearance of water in the channel show up clearly in the current Google Maps satellite imagery, when you zoom in: explore for yourself downstream of one of the major apparent sinkholes near Wetton Mill, and near where it starts to reappear near Ilam.

Categories: by Anne, geology, hydrology, photos

10 years of scientific career evolution: from springs to stormwater, student to teacher

This summer, I’m involved with a super-cool Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program focused on aquatic-terrestrial linkages in urban impacted ecosystems. Undergraduate students come to Kent State for 10 weeks to design, undertake, and present a mentored, independent research project, which is a huge boost for graduate school applications or just figuring out whether scientific research is the right path for you. In the first few weeks, our REU students also take field trips to various natural and urban green areas in the region. I got to help with a trip to Cleveland Metroparks Watershed Stewardship Center and some surrounding neighborhoods, where Metroparks has been undertaking efforts to distribute storm water management through rain gardens, rain barrels, and bioretention cells. A MS student working with me is focused on the hydrologic impacts of these efforts, and the REU student I’m mentoring will be adding to our knowledge about how soil moisture and plant conditions affect bioretention performance. Here I am telling the group about how bioretention cells are built and what we know about how well they are working:

I was tickled when I saw this photo and its accompanying tweet, not only because of the nice pun, but also to think that a bioretention cell is now “the field” for me and my students. It doesn’t seem so long ago when this was me in the field:

Anne in a stream

Anne measuring discharge at Olallie Creek, March 2005, photo probably by Sarah Lewis.

My PhD research focused on the hydrology of massively spring-fed streams in the Oregon High Cascades, how they are a function of the young volcanic landscape in which they are found, and how the springs, their streams, and the landscape co-evolve over geologic time.

I think these two photos nicely capture some fundamental features of scientific careers.

First, your whole career won’t be defined by topic of your PhD. Your interests, and the opportunities that are available, will evolve over time as you move geographically and professionally and as the field changes along with you. I dimly recall my undergraduate professors telling me something like this, but I didn’t really understand it until much later. I’ve written before how the move from Oregon (volcanoes, big springs, and snow) to North Carolina (none of the preceding, but lots of interesting urban streams) altered my perspectives. I still work a little on topics related to my PhD, but its clear that my professional trajectory has moved in a different direction. Some movement is also necessary if you want to establish yourself as a scientist independent of your former advisors, and that’s often a tenure requirement. A lot of people don’t shift course as radically as I have, but few researchers will go their whole careers with a single narrow focus.

Second, the field won’t always be your focus. At some point you stop being the student and become the teacher. In that transition, you’ll probably stop doing the frequent and hard physical work in the field and instead make only occasional forays to field sites, during which you are liable to be caught pontificating. This is a bit bittersweet for me. I love mentoring students and helping them to develop into scientists and professionals in their own right, and my job and life are now multi-faceted enough that frequent or extended field work would be hard to manage. But I miss getting to spend long summer days in the field, measuring streamflow or soils, writing data in a rite-in-the-rain notebook, and being the very first person to ever know some infitesimally small piece of knowledge. I miss the intimate connection with my field areas, watching them change subtly with passing storms and seasons. Fortunately, I’ve been haunting the isotope lab lately, getting to intimately know the quirks of the isotope analyzer, and being the first person to look at the data coming off each run. It’s not the same as the field, but it gives me some of the same thrill of discovery.

On our day in the field last week, a colleague said “When we come back in 10 years and measure this…”, it gave me a big pause. My colleague is right, 10 years on, these bioretention cells will have lots of interesting traits they don’t have now, and I can’t wait to see them evolve. But my career will be evolving too, and I might be studying both bioretention and something else entirely by then.

Categories: academic life, by Anne, fieldwork, hydrology

A ton of 2+ year-old AGU journal articles are now open access!

A post by Chris RowanGood news everyone! Last week, the AGU announced that from now on all of its journal content will be made freely available 2 years after initial publication. The open access window extends all the way back to articles published in 1997, which according to the AGU press release currently represents about 80,000 journal articles now accessible to anyone who wants to read them.

Professor Farnsworth can now read that GRL article he's been trying to get hold of for ages (from the Futurama Wiki).

Professor Farnsworth can now read that GRL article he’s been trying to get hold of for ages (from the Futurama Wiki).

I have to confess that I was not particularly chuffed when production of the AGU journals shifted to Wiley a couple of years ago. But if that was a move that made opening up the back catalogue like this feasible, then I am a little bit happier. Especially since a number of papers I am an author on are now freely available to anyone who wants to read them. And since my current institution does not subscribe to a couple of the AGU journals that are important in my field, its a professional plus, too. And who knows? Maybe this AGU member will finally be able to reliably access EOS. The two year-old editions, anyway.

Categories: geology, public science, publication

Reconstructing ocean spreading when half your record is now in the mantle (or: a plug for my new paper)

A post by Chris RowanIf you’re studying the last 100 million years or so of plate tectonics, the history of sea-floor spreading recorded by the magnetic stripes that parallel and extend away from the Earth’s ocean ridges is a key source of information. Each stripe represents a section of oceanic crust that is magnetised either in the same direction as the Earth’s magnetic field generated in the outer core, or in the opposite direction. These crustal magnetisations act to slightly reinforce or slightly cancel out the core field, respectively, and are the result of continuous production of oceanic crust at the mid-ocean ridges, combined with the periodic reversals of the Earth’s magnetic field

S Pacific magnetic anomalies

Magnetic anomalies in the South Pacific: part of the World Magnetic Anomaly Map, via a Useful KML file from San Diego State University

Key to using these anomalies to reconstruct plate motions are the boundaries between positively and negatively magnetised stripes of crust. These boundaries represent oceanic crust that was produced at the spreading ridge at the time when the Earth’s magnetic field reversed. A boundary marking each reversal can be found on both plates at a spreading ridge, representing crust that must have been in contact at the ridge axis during the time of the reversal, before being separated by continued oceanic spreading between the two plates. Just find the rotation that causes these two lines of equal time, called isochrons, to overlap with each other, and you have a well-determined record of how fast, and in what direction, the plates have moved apart from each other since the time of that magnetic reversal. Nice and easy.

Conjugate magnetic anomaly fitting

If you can identify the same magnetic anomaly boundary (t1) on both sides of an active spreading ridge, you can reconstruct the spreading since that reversal by finding the rotation that puts the paired anomalies back on top of each other.

These data are not just important for describing the behaviour of individual ridge systems, but also for understanding plate tectonic processes on a global scale. The 60,000 km of oceanic spreading ridge that wind their way through the modern ocean basins, 4 kilometres beneath the ocean surface, are a major conduit of heat and mass transfer between the interior of the Earth and its surface. There is some debate over whether the rate of oceanic crust production has varied over geological time; this could potentially effect the global climate, by increasing or decreasing the flux of carbon dioxide into the oceans and atmosphere. Faster spreading rates would also mean a larger proportion of young, hot, buoyant oceanic crust flooring the ocean basins, making them shallower and raising global sea levels – conversely, a reduced global spreading rate would lower them.

It turns out that for the global spreading rate picture, reconstructing the history of what is now the East Pacific Rise is a very important part of the puzzle. The modern East Pacific Rise is the fastest spreading ridge on Earth, accommodating the rifting of the Pacific and Nazca plates at rates of up to 15 centimetres a year (compared to a global average of about 4.5 centimetres a year).

Distibrution of global oceanic spreading rates

A graph showing the distribution of spreading rates on the different oceanic ridges. The EPR, in red, has much faster spreading rates than any other ridge.

It has also had a very interesting tectonic history. The modern East Pacific Rise is mostly restricted to the Southern hemisphere, running into North America in the Gulf of California; but 80 million years ago, it was part of a much longer ridge system, almost 10,000 km long, that extended much further north. At this point, the plate on the eastern side of the ridge was known as the Farallon Plate.

80 Ma Global plate tectonic reconstruction

A global plate reconstruction at 80 million years before the present, showing a much longer Pacific-Farallon Ridge in the Western Pacific. Source: Seton et. al. (2012).

Just like today, the Pacific ocean 80 million years ago was ringed by subduction zones, and it turned out that the northern part of the Pacific-Farallon ridge was living on borrowed time; the rate at which old Farallon plate was being returned to the mantle by subduction beneath the west coast of North America was greater than the rate at which new Farallon crust was being added at the ridge. And thus the ridge itself gradually approached, and then collided with, North America, and the once-mighty Farallon Plate broke up into a number of smaller fragments. The animation below, courtesy of Tanya Atwater shows this process.

There are two significant points here. Firstly, for most of the last 100 million years or so, the spreading ridge in the Pacific ocean has been very long, or very fast spreading, or potentially both. In fact, our best estimates suggest that this single ridge system is responsible for about 40-45% of all of the oceanic crust produced since about 83 million years ago. Thus a change in spreading on this ridge at some point in the geological past could potentially have significant global effects. But secondly, accurately reconstructing the spreading history is made significantly more difficult by the almost total destruction of the Farallon plate by subduction; it is hard to find the rotation between matching isochrons when once of those isochrons is now somewhere in the mantle beneath Iowa.

So what to do? One approach, which is the basis of a paper I’ve just had published in Geophysical Journal International, is to make the best of what is left: the record of spreading still retained on the unsubducted Pacific plate. We can’t rotate matching anomaly boundaries on the two different plates back together to find the total spreading, but we can rotate adjacent anomaly boundaries on the same plate (the Pacific Plate, in this case) back together to find how much spreading occurred on the western side of the ridge between the two reversals, which should be mirrored by spreading on the (now-destroyed) eastern side of the ridge in the same time period.

Adjacent magnetic anomaly fitting

If one plate has been subducted, you don’t have pairs of magnetic anomaly boundaries that formed at the same time. But you can reconstruct rotations between anomaly boundaries on the same plate, and use that to extrapolate how much crust was produced in the same time period on the now-subducted plate.

It’s not ideal, because the shape of the ridge can and does change over time, so that adjacent anomaly boundaries are not an exact geometric match to each other. There’s also the fact that the East Pacific Rise is an asymmetric spreading ridge: based on the increasingly limited record in the South Pacific, only about 42% of all the oceanic crust produced in the past 50 million years has been added on the west (Pacific) side of the ridge, with the remaining 58% being added to the eastern (Farallon/Nazca) side. Our new paper attempts to better quantify how this spreading asymmetry varies over time where we do have a record, to set limits on what may have happened prior to 50 million years ago, when we have no record at all.

So what have we determined? The plot below shows how the average spreading rate of the Pacific-Farallon ridge has changed over time. It has never been exactly slow, but there seems to have been a transition from ‘pretty darn fast’ to ‘extremely darn fast’ around 50 million years ago.

Pacific-Farallon ridge spreading rates

Reconstructed spreading rate of the Pacific-Farallon ridge as it progressively collided with North America and shortened to form the modern East Pacific Rise. Also shown: major fragmentation events on the Farallon plate, and the broad variation in spreading asymmetry. From Rowan and Rowley (2014).

This increase coincides with the first stages of Farallon plate break-up, but although the timing is right, in some ways the response is the opposite of what you’d expect. Surface plate motions are largely thought to be driven by the pull of dense subducting slabs as they sink into the mantle; if this is the case, reducing the amount of subducting slab attached to your plate by breaking a bit off should also reduce the driving forces and slow the remaining plate down, not accelerate it. Additionally perplexing is the fact that the direction of spreading does not really change at all during this transition, either, and is in fact remarkably stable through the entire period that the ridge is colliding with North America, when you would expect there to be large changes in the balance of slab pull forces.

So what is driving this change? We’re still working on that bit (my AGU talk last December was on this very subject), but currently the speculative finger is pointing at something acting at the ridge axis itself. The potential clue? As is also shown in the plot above, there are indications that periods of higher spreading rate over the past 50 million years coincide with periods of higher spreading asymmetry. If this correlation is real, only forces acting at the ridge axis can easily explain it. As is always the case in science, you answer one question, and several more pop up to replace it.

Rowan, C.J., and Rowley, D.B. (2014). Spreading behaviour of the Pacific-Farallon ridge system since 83 Ma. Geophys. J. Int.,

Categories: geology, geophysics, palaeomagic, tectonics