One year ago today: crossing the Drake Passage

A post by Chris RowanA post by Anne JeffersonEven starting off as far south as Ushuaia, it’s a long way to Antarctica – almost 1000 km of open water. We got a peek at the chart below whilst touring the bridge of the Corinthian – they have computer charts nowadays, of course, but as geologists we still have a soft spot for the paper variety.

A chart showing our heading across the Drake Passage. Photo: Anne Jefferson, 2013.

A chart showing our heading across the Drake Passage. Photo: Anne Jefferson, 2013.

The Drake Passage is not known as the calmest bodies of water on the planet – quite the contrary in fact. But we were fortunate: whilst there was still a noticeable swell, it was hardly the sort of whether that required us to use the straps on the beds in our cabins. But despite having no impediment to a bracing tour of the upper decks, the only thing to see other than grey ocean was the company of seabirds tracking our route – probably because we were the only thing of interest for them, too.

Storm Petrels above the stormy seas of the Drake.

Storm Petrels above the stormy seas of the Drake. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2013

Categories: Antarctica, photos

One year ago today: our Antarctic voyage begins

A post by Chris RowanA post by Anne JeffersonYou may recall that last Christmas, your intrepid bloggers managed to find ourselves on the trip of a lifetime to the Antarctic. We’re pretty sure that Geokid was Santa’s most southerly delivery on Christmas Eve. We have posted the odd photo of our trip, but somehow in a very hectic year we have not shared as many of the amazing sights, sounds and memories of our cruise around the Antarctic Peninsula as we would have liked – and we’d like to change that. So over the next few days, we’re going to indulge in a bit of time travel and show you what we were up to this time last year. Life is still busy, so there’s no guarantee of much insightful commentary, but quite frankly, it’s mostly unnecessary. And I think we can guarantee penguins. Lots of penguins.

So: exactly one year ago today, the fair ship Corinthian departed Ushuaia in Southern Argentina, heading east along the Beagle Channel (yes, that Beagle). That morning, we had gotten an all-too-brief taste of the spectacular scenery of Tierra del Fuego National Park up close: now, aided by some rather spectacular evening weather, we got a slightly wider view.

Lago Roca, Tierra del Fuego National Park.

Lago Roca, Tierra del Fuego National Park. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2013.

Looking west along the Beagle Channel

Looking west along the Beagle Channel. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2013.

As the sun went down, the mountains were being left behind and the open ocean was beckoning.

Cruising towards the eastern end of the Beagle Channel. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2013.

Cruising towards the eastern end of the Beagle Channel. Photo: Chris Rowan, 2013.

Categories: Antarctica, photos

Come research with us!

A post by Chris RowanIt’s a truth universally acknowledged that a university professor with an active research program must be in want of grad students. MS and PhD students are generally the people who actually do all of the interesting science that we never seem to have time for any more, whilst learning valuable technical and analytical skills that will open up interesting future careers for themselves.

Both Anne and I have plenty of interesting scientific problems that we just need enthusiastic students to get started on solving (although we obviously differ on exactly what we define as an ‘interesting scientific problem’); and right now, our department is accepting applications for our graduate program that we are hoping will send some our way. Together with a couple of our colleagues in the department, we put together the ad below to give potential applicants an idea of the sort of research projects on offer – which run all across the earth science spectrum, from hydrology to biogeochemistry to environmental mineralogy to to plate tectonics.

MS or PhD student opportunities in Earth Science Department of Geology, Kent State University

Successful applicants will join the Department of Geology at Kent State University in August 2015 (Fall Semester). Support will be a combination of teaching and research assistantships (including tuition and health insurance) and is available for 2 years for MS students and 4 years for PhD students. The Department of Geology has over 30 active graduate students and a wide variety of analytical facilities. We have vigorous ties with faculty in Biological Sciences, Geography, and Architecture.

Hydrology/Geomorphology: Opportunities are available working with Dr. Anne Jefferson ( in the Watershed Hydrology Lab. Research will involve a significant field component, but may also include stable isotope and water quality lab work and GIS analyses. A specific project will be chosen based on mutual interests from, the following possible projects:

  • Quantifying effects of green infrastructure on water and nutrient budgets;
  • Isotopic variability of surface waters in northeastern Ohio, as a function of urban land uses and groundwater-surface water interaction; and
  • Controls on stream morphology and sediment export within Cuyahoga Valley National Park at Holocene, multi-century, and modern timescales.

Tectonics/Geophysics: Dr. Chris Rowan ( is seeking graduate students with interests in tectonic processes and/or paleo- and rock magnetism. Research will focus on unravelling global and regional patterns of tectonic deformation by integrating field data with laboratory and modelling studies. Potential projects include:

  • Reconstructing strain evolution at collisional plate boundaries;
  • Studying the history and drivers of global plate motions;
  • Analogue modelling of complex deforming regions.

Environmental Geochemistry/Biogeochemistry: Dr. Elizabeth Herndon ( is seeking graduate students to conduct research related to environmental geochemistry and biogeochemistry ( Projects will include a combination of field work, laboratory experiments, and spectroscopy. Students will operate analytical instruments to characterize soil and water chemistry. Recent projects include:

  • Human impacts on soil geochemistry and mineral weathering
  • Influence of vegetation on element transport through watersheds
  • Geochemical drivers of organic matter decomposition in anoxic tundra soils

Environmental Mineralogy and Geochemistry: Opportunities are available to work with Dr. David Singer ( in the Environmental Mineralogy and Geochemistry Lab. Research involves laboratory and field experiments on the fate and transport of trace metal in the environment, with a focus on water-energy systems. Experimental work includes Synchrotron-based X-ray experiments. Recent projects include:

  • Metal speciation and distribution in the Marcellus shale
  • Transformations of iron (oxy)hydroxides in acid mine drainage settings
  • Soil development on coal mine tailings
  • Ion sorption and diffusion into mesoporous materials

Interested students should have a background in geology, earth science, chemistry, hydrology/water resources, or civil and environmental engineering. Strong applicants will have a solid academic record (>3.5/4.0 GPA, >70th percentile on GRE) and previous research experience. Applicants not meeting these criteria will also be considered based on a compelling letter of interest. Interested students should contact their prospective advisor by December 15th, 2014. Please send a letter of interest (including your academic and research background and specific research interests), unofficial transcripts and GRE scores, and contact information for 3 references. Completion of a formal application through the Graduate School is required by January 15th, 2015, and information on this process can be found at

If you are looking for the chance to gain your graduate degree with us or one of our equally cool colleagues, we look forward to hearing from you.

Categories: academic life

Environmental Earth Science in the News Roundup #6

As the semester winds down, the relevance of Environmental Earth Science to topics in the news keeps going strong. Thanks to the students for finding these great connections.

Categories: by Anne, environment, society, teaching

L’Aquila earthquake manslaughter verdict reversed

A post by Chris RowanIt should come as no surprise that I think that this is the right result:

Six seismologists accused of misleading the public about the risk of an earthquake in Italy were cleared of manslaughter on 10 November. An appeals court overturned their six-year prison sentences and reduced to two years the sentence for a government official who had been convicted with them.

We’ll have to wait for the verdict to be published before we’ll know the reasoning that led the appeals court to overturn the original verdict, which was a little bit unexpected given the somewhat pessimistic accounts of how the appeal was proceeding last month. There is also still the prospect of a further appeal. For the moment, however, the scientific community can breath a sigh of relief: there is no longer a legal precedent for being prosecuted for failing to predict the unpredictable.

However, although the manslaughter charge was always senseless, as David Wolman’s compelling account makes clear, there are still some hard lessons to be learnt from this tragic affair. I’ve argued before that a lot of harm comes from the whole mistaken idea that earthquake risk assessments can be given and adjusted in real-time, but the way this specific situation was handled at the time was also wanting, in ways I may have been slow to appreciate.

A few weeks ago, I discussed the L’Aquila story with my class. After a lively ‘mock trial’, the consensus in the room seemed to settle on the following points:

  • It wasn’t manslaughter.
  • Bernardo De Bernardinis’ statement about there being “no danger, because there is an ongoing discharge of energy” was…not clever.
  • The rest of the scientists on the Serious Risk Commission abdicated their responsibilities by not talking to the public in L’Aquila themselves, effectively leaving De Bernardinis’ misguided statement as the official line.

I’ve been contemplating that last point ever since, because there does appear to be a critical mismatch between what was said behind closed doors, and what the public heard. The scientists on the Serious Risk Commission would probably argue that their responsibility began and ended with the former: the government asked for their opinion, and they gave it. The latter – what was ultimately done with that advice – was outside of their area of responsibility. But the very act of meeting in March 2009 – being flown down to L’Aquila to do so – was part of a government PR operation designed to calm a troubled populace. Considering that context, did the members of the Serious Risk Commission not have a further duty to ensure that the ‘be calm’ message did not go too far?

Earthquakes remain unpredictable: the close timing of the Italian authorities’ media blitz and a major earthquake remains a tragic and unforeseeable coincidence. It may not have made much difference, but this disconnect between what was said and what was made known might explain much of the anger still felt by people in the region, particularly by the families of the more than 300 people who were killed.

Categories: earthquakes, public science, society