Geologists dig into science around the globe, on land and at sea

University of Cincinnati geologists will be well represented among geoscientists from around the world at The Geological Society of America’s Annual Meeting and Exposition. The meeting takes place Oct. 19-22, in Vancouver, Canada, and will feature geoscientists representing more than 40 different disciplines. The meeting will feature highlights of UC’s geological research that is taking place globally, from Chile to Costa Rica, Belize, Bulgaria, Scotland, Trinidad and a new project under development in the Canary Islands.

UC faculty and graduate students are lead or supporting authors on more than two dozen Earth Sciences-related research papers and/or PowerPoint and poster exhibitions at the GSA meeting.

The presentations also cover UC’s longtime and extensive exploration and findings in the Cincinnati Arch of the Ohio Valley, world-renowned for its treasure trove of paleontology – plant and animal fossils that were preserved when a shallow sea covered the region 450 million years ago during the Paleozoic Era.

Furthermore, in an effort to diversify the field of researchers in the Earth Sciences, a UC assistant professor of science education and geology, Christopher Atchison, was awarded funding from the National Science Foundation and the Society of Exploration Geophysics to lead a research field trip in Vancouver for students with disabilities. Graduate and undergraduate student participants will conduct the research on Oct. 18 and then join events at the GSA meeting. They’ll be guided by geoscience researchers representing the United Kingdom, New Zealand, Canada and the U.S. Those guides include Atchison and Julie Hendricks, a UC special education major from Batavia, Ohio, who will be using her expertise in American Sign Language (ASL) to assist student researchers representing Deaf and Hard of Hearing communities.

The meeting will also formally introduce Arnold Miller, UC professor of geology, as the new president-elect of the national Paleontological Society Thomas Lowell, professor of geology, is a recently elected Fellow of the Geological Society of America – a recognition for producing a substantial body of research. Lowell joins colleagues Warren Huff, professor of geology, and Lewis Owen, professor and head of the Department of Geology, as GSA Fellows.

Here are highlights of the UC research to be presented at the GSA meeting Oct. 19-22:

Staying Put or Moving On? Researchers Develop Model to Identify Migrating Patterns of Different Species

Are plant and animal species what you might call lifelong residents – they never budge from the same place? That’s a relatively common belief in ecology and paleoecology – that classes of organisms tend to stay put over millions of years and either evolve or go extinct as the environment changes. UC researchers developed a series of numerical models simulating shifting habitats in fossil regions to compare whether species changed environments when factoring geological and other changes in the fossil record. They found that geologically driven changes in the quality of the fossil record did not distort the real ecological signal, and that most species maintained their particular habitat preferences through time. They did not evolve to adapt to changing environments, but rather, they migrated, following their preferred environments. That is to say, they did not stay in place geographically but by moving, they were able to track their favored habitats. Field research for the project was conducted in New York state as well as the paleontological-rich region of Cincinnati; Dayton, Ohio, Lexington, Ky.; and Indiana. Funding for the project was supported by The Paleontological Society; The Geological Society of America; The American Museum of Natural History and the UC Geology Department’s Kenneth E. Caster Memorial Fund.

Presenter: Andrew Zaffos, UC geology doctoral student

Co-authors: Arnold Miller, Carlton Brett

Pioneering Study Provides a Better Understanding of What Southern Ohio and Central Kentucky Looked Like Hundreds of Millions of Years Ago

The end of the Ordovician period resulted in one of the largest mass extinction events in the Earth’s history. T.J. Malgieri, a UC master’s student in geology, led this study examining the limestone and shales of the Upper Ordovician Period – the geologic Grant Lake Formation covering southern Ohio and central Kentucky – to recreate how the shoreline looked some 445 million years ago. In this pioneering study of mud cracks and deposits in the rocks, the researchers discovered that the shoreline existed to the south and that the water became deeper toward the north. By determining these ecological parameters, the ramp study provides a better understanding of environments during a time of significant ecological change. Malgieri says the approach can be applied to other basins throughout the world to create depth indicators in paeloenvironments.

Presenter: T.J. Malgieri, UC geology master’s student

Co-authors: Carlton Brett, Cameron Schalbach, Christopher Aucoin, UC; James Thomka (UC, University of Akron); Benjamin Dattilo, Indiana University Purdue University Ft. Wayne

UC Researchers Take a Unique Approach to Monitoring Groundwater Supplies Near Ohio Fracking Sites

A collaborative research project out of UC is examining effects of fracking on groundwater in the Utica Shale region of eastern Ohio. First launched in Carroll County in 2012, the team of researchers is examining methane levels and origins of methane in private wells and springs before, during and after the onset of fracking. The team travels to the region to take water samples four times a year.

Presenter: Claire Botner, a UC geology master’s student

Co-author: Amy Townsend-Small, UC assistant professor of geology

Sawing Through Seagrass to Reveal Clues to the Past

Kelsy Feser, a UC doctoral student in geology, is working at several sites around St. Croix in the Virgin Islands to see if human developments impact marine life. The research focuses on shells of snails and clams that have piled up on the sea floor for thousands of years. Digging through layers of thick seagrass beds on the ocean floor, Feser can examine deeper shells that were abundant thousands of years ago and compare them to shallower layers that include living clams and snails. Early analysis indicates a greater population of potentially pollution-tolerant mussels in an area near a landfill on the island, compared with shells from much earlier time periods. Feser is doing this sea grass analysis around additional sites including tourist resorts, an oil refinery, a power plant and a marina. Funding for the research is provided by the Paleontological Society, the GSA, the American Museum of Natural History and the UC Geology Department.

Presenter: Kelsy Feser, UC geology doctoral student

Co-authors: Arnold Miller

Turning to the Present to Understand the Past

In order to properly interpret changes in climate, vegetation, or animal populations over time, it is necessary to establish a comparative baseline. Stella Mosher, a UC geology master’s student, is studying stable carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and strontium isotopes in modern vegetation from the Canary Islands in order to quantify modern climatic and environmental patterns. Her findings will provide a crucial foundation for future UC research on regional paleoclimatic and paleoenvironmental shifts.

Presenter: Stella Mosher, graduate student in geology

Co-authors: Brooke Crowley, assistant professor of geology; Yurena Yanes, research assistant professor of geology

A Study on the Impact of Sea Spray

Sulfur is an element of interest in both geology and archaeology, because it can reveal information about the diets of ancient cultures. This study takes a novel approach to studying how sea spray can affect the sulfur isotope values in plants on a small island, focusing on the island of Trinidad. Researchers collected leaves from different plant species to get their sulfur isotope value, exploring whether wind direction played a role in how plants were influenced by the marine water from sea spray. Vegetation was collected from the edges of the island to the deeply forested areas. The study found that sulfur isotope values deeper inland and on the calmer west coast were dramatically lower in indicating marine water than vegetation along the edges and the east coast. The findings can help indicate the foraging activities of humans and animals. Funding for the study was supported by the Geological Society of America, the UC Graduate Student Association and the UC Department of Geology.

Presenter: Janine Sparks, UC geology doctoral student

Co-authors: Brooke Crowley, UC assistant professor, geology/anthropology; William Gilhooly III, assistant professor, Earth Sciences, Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis

Proxy Wars – The Paleobiology Data Debate

For the past several decades, paleobiologists have built large databases containing information on fossil plants and animals of all geological ages to investigate the timing and extent of major changes in biodiversity – changes such as mass extinctions that have taken place throughout the history of life. Biodiversity researcher Arnold Miller says that in building these databases, it can be a challenge to accurately identify species in the geological record, so it has been common for researchers to instead study biodiversity trends using data compiled at broader levels of biological classification, including the genus level, under the assumption that these patterns are effective proxies for what would be observed among species if the data were available. Miller has been involved in construction of The Paleobiology Database, an extensive public online resource that contains global genus- and species-level data, now permitting a direct, novel look at the similarities and differences between patterns at these two levels. Miller’s discussion aims to set the record straight as to when researchers can effectively use a genus as a proxy for a species and also when it’s inappropriate. This research is funded by the NASA Astrobiology Program.

Presenter: Arnold Miller, UC professor of geology

A Novel New Method for Examining the Distribution of Pores in Rocks

Oil and gas companies take an interest in the porosity of sedimentary rocks because those open spaces can be filled with fuel resources. Companies involved with hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) are also interested in porosity because it could be a source for storing wastewater as a result of fracking. In this unique study, UC researchers made pore-size measurements similar to those used in crystal size distribution (CSD) theory to determine distribution of pores as a function of their sizes, using thin sections of rock. In addition to providing accurate porosity distribution at a given depth, their approach can be extended to evaluate variation of pore spaces as a function of depth in a drill core, percent of pores in each size range, and pore types and pore geometry. The Texas Bureau of Economic Geology provided the rock samples used in the study. Funding for the study was supported by the Turkish Petroleum Corporation.

Presenter: Ugurlu Ibrahim, master’s student in geology

Co-author: Attila Kilinc, professor of geology

Researchers Turn to 3-D Technology to Examine the Formation of Cliffband Landscapes

A blend of photos and technology takes a new twist on studying cliff landscapes and how they were formed. The method called Structure-From-Motion Photogrammetry – computational photo image processing techniques – is used to study the formation of cliff landscapes in Colorado and Utah and to understand how the layered rock formations in the cliffs are affected by erosion.

Presenter: Dylan Ward, UC assistant professor of geology

Testing the Links Between Climate and Sedimentation in the Atacama Desert, Northern Chile

The Atacama Desert is used as an analog for understanding the surface of Mars. In some localities, there has been no activity for millions of years. UC researchers have been working along the flank of the Andes Mountains in northern Chile, and this particular examination focuses on the large deposits of sediment that are transported down the plateau and gather at the base. The researchers are finding that their samples are not reflecting the million-year-old relics previously found on such expeditions, but may indicate more youthful activity possibly resulting from climatic events. The research is supported by a $273,634 grant from the National Science Foundation to explore glacio-geomorphic constraints on the climate history of subtropical northern Chile.

Presenter: Jason Cesta, UC geology master’s student

Co-author: Dylan Ward, UC assistant professor of geology

Uncovering the Explosive Mysteries Surrounding the Manganese of Northeast Bulgaria

UC’s geology collections hold minerals from field expeditions around the world, including manganese from the Obrochishte mines of northeastern Bulgaria. Found in the region’s sedimentary rock, manganese can be added to metals such as steel to improve strength. It’s widely believed that these manganese formations were the result of ocean water composition at the time the sediments were deposited in the ocean. In this presentation, UC researchers present new information on why they believe the manganese formations resulted from volcanic eruptions, perhaps during the Rupelian stage of the geologic time scale, when bentonite clay minerals were formed. The presentation evolved from an advance class project last spring under the direction of Warren Huff, a UC professor of geology.

Presenter: Jason Cesta, UC geology master’s student

Co-authors: Warren Huff, UC professor of geology; Christopher Aucoin; Michael Harrell; Thomas Malgieri; Barry Maynard; Cameron Schwalbach; Ibrahim Ugurlu; Antony Winrod

Two UC researchers will chair sessions at the GSA meeting: Doctoral student Gary Motz will chair the session, “Topics in Paleoecology: Modern Analogues and Ancient Systems,” on Oct. 19. Matt Vrazo, also a doctoral student in geology, is chairing “Paleontology: Trace Fossils, Taphonomy and Exceptional Preservation” on Oct. 21, and will present, “Taphonomic and Ecological Controls on Eurypterid Lagerstäten: A Model for Preservation in the Mid-Paleozoic.”

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UC’s nationally ranked Department of Geology conducts field research around the world in areas spanning paleontology, quaternary geology, geomorphology, sedimentology, stratigraphy, tectonics, environmental geology and biogeochemistry.

The Geological Society of America, founded in 1888, is a scientific society with more than 26,500 members from academia, government, and industry in more than 100 countries. Through its meetings, publications, and programs, GSA enhances the professional growth of its members and promotes the geosciences in the service of humankind.

A stepping-stone for oxygen on Earth

For most terrestrial life on Earth, oxygen is necessary for survival. But the planet’s atmosphere did not always contain this life-sustaining substance, and one of science’s greatest mysteries is how and when oxygenic photosynthesis-the process responsible for producing oxygen on Earth through the splitting of water molecules-first began. Now, a team led by geobiologists at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) has found evidence of a precursor photosystem involving manganese that predates cyanobacteria, the first group of organisms to release oxygen into the environment via photosynthesis.

The findings, outlined in the June 24 early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), strongly support the idea that manganese oxidation-which, despite the name, is a chemical reaction that does not have to involve oxygen-provided an evolutionary stepping-stone for the development of water-oxidizing photosynthesis in cyanobacteria.

“Water-oxidizing or water-splitting photosynthesis was invented by cyanobacteria approximately 2.4 billion years ago and then borrowed by other groups of organisms thereafter,” explains Woodward Fischer, assistant professor of geobiology at Caltech and a coauthor of the study. “Algae borrowed this photosynthetic system from cyanobacteria, and plants are just a group of algae that took photosynthesis on land, so we think with this finding we’re looking at the inception of the molecular machinery that would give rise to oxygen.”

Photosynthesis is the process by which energy from the sun is used by plants and other organisms to split water and carbon dioxide molecules to make carbohydrates and oxygen. Manganese is required for water splitting to work, so when scientists began to wonder what evolutionary steps may have led up to an oxygenated atmosphere on Earth, they started to look for evidence of manganese-oxidizing photosynthesis prior to cyanobacteria. Since oxidation simply involves the transfer of electrons to increase the charge on an atom-and this can be accomplished using light or O2-it could have occurred before the rise of oxygen on this planet.

“Manganese plays an essential role in modern biological water splitting as a necessary catalyst in the process, so manganese-oxidizing photosynthesis makes sense as a potential transitional photosystem,” says Jena Johnson, a graduate student in Fischer’s laboratory at Caltech and lead author of the study.

To test the hypothesis that manganese-based photosynthesis occurred prior to the evolution of oxygenic cyanobacteria, the researchers examined drill cores (newly obtained by the Agouron Institute) from 2.415 billion-year-old South African marine sedimentary rocks with large deposits of manganese.

Manganese is soluble in seawater. Indeed, if there are no strong oxidants around to accept electrons from the manganese, it will remain aqueous, Fischer explains, but the second it is oxidized, or loses electrons, manganese precipitates, forming a solid that can become concentrated within seafloor sediments.

“Just the observation of these large enrichments-16 percent manganese in some samples-provided a strong implication that the manganese had been oxidized, but this required confirmation,” he says.

To prove that the manganese was originally part of the South African rock and not deposited there later by hydrothermal fluids or some other phenomena, Johnson and colleagues developed and employed techniques that allowed the team to assess the abundance and oxidation state of manganese-bearing minerals at a very tiny scale of 2 microns.

“And it’s warranted-these rocks are complicated at a micron scale!” Fischer says. “And yet, the rocks occupy hundreds of meters of stratigraphy across hundreds of square kilometers of ocean basin, so you need to be able to work between many scales-very detailed ones, but also across the whole deposit to understand the ancient environmental processes at work.”

Using these multiscale approaches, Johnson and colleagues demonstrated that the manganese was original to the rocks and first deposited in sediments as manganese oxides, and that manganese oxidation occurred over a broad swath of the ancient marine basin during the entire timescale captured by the drill cores.

“It’s really amazing to be able to use X-ray techniques to look back into the rock record and use the chemical observations on the microscale to shed light on some of the fundamental processes and mechanisms that occurred billions of years ago,” says Samuel Webb, coauthor on the paper and beam line scientist at the SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory at Stanford University, where many of the study’s experiments took place. “Questions regarding the evolution of the photosynthetic pathway and the subsequent rise of oxygen in the atmosphere are critical for understanding not only the history of our own planet, but also the basics of how biology has perfected the process of photosynthesis.”

Once the team confirmed that the manganese had been deposited as an oxide phase when the rock was first forming, they checked to see if these manganese oxides were actually formed before water-splitting photosynthesis or if they formed after as a result of reactions with oxygen. They used two different techniques to check whether oxygen was present. It was not-proving that water-splitting photosynthesis had not yet evolved at that point in time. The manganese in the deposits had indeed been oxidized and deposited before the appearance of water-splitting cyanobacteria. This implies, the researchers say, that manganese-oxidizing photosynthesis was a stepping-stone for oxygen-producing, water-splitting photosynthesis.

“I think that there will be a number of additional experiments that people will now attempt to try and reverse engineer a manganese photosynthetic photosystem or cell,” Fischer says. “Once you know that this happened, it all of a sudden gives you reason to take more seriously an experimental program aimed at asking, ‘Can we make a photosystem that’s able to oxidize manganese but doesn’t then go on to split water? How does it behave, and what is its chemistry?’ Even though we know what modern water splitting is and what it looks like, we still don’t know exactly how it works. There is a still a major discovery to be made to find out exactly how the catalysis works, and now knowing where this machinery comes from may open new perspectives into its function-an understanding that could help target technologies for energy production from artificial photosynthesis. ”

Next up in Fischer’s lab, Johnson plans to work with others to try and mutate a cyanobacteria to “go backwards” and perform manganese-oxidizing photosynthesis. The team also plans to investigate a set of rocks from western Australia that are similar in age to the samples used in the current study and may also contain beds of manganese. If their current study results are truly an indication of manganese-oxidizing photosynthesis, they say, there should be evidence of the same processes in other parts of the world.

“Oxygen is the backdrop on which this story is playing out on, but really, this is a tale of the evolution of this very intense metabolism that happened once-an evolutionary singularity that transformed the planet,” Fischer says. “We’ve provided insight into how the evolution of one of these remarkable molecular machines led up to the oxidation of our planet’s atmosphere, and now we’re going to follow up on all angles of our findings.”

Scientist finds topography of Eastern Seaboard muddles ancient sea level changes

The distortion of the ancient shoreline and flooding surface of the U.S. Atlantic Coastal Plain are the direct result of fluctuations in topography in the region and could have implications on understanding long-term climate change, according to a new study.

Sedimentary rocks from Virginia through Florida show marine flooding during the mid-Pliocene Epoch, which correlates to approximately 4 million years ago. Several wave-cut scarps, (rock exposures) which originally would have been horizontal, are now draped over a warped surface with up to 60 meters variation.

Nathan Simmons of Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory and colleagues from the University of Chicago, Université du Québec à Montréal, Syracuse University, Harvard University and the University of Texas at Austin modeled the active topography using mantle convection simulations that predict the amplitude and broad spatial distribution of this distortion. The results imply that dynamic topography and, to a lesser extent, glacial adjustment, account for the current architecture of the coastal plain and nearby shelf.

The results appear in the May 16 edition of Science Express, and will appear at a later date in Science Magazine,

“Our simulations of dynamic topography of the Eastern Seaboard have implications for inferences of global long-term sea-level change,” Simmons said.

The eastern coast of the United States is considered an archetypal Atlantic-type or passive-type continental margin.

“The highlight is that mantle flow is a major component in distorting the Earth’s surface over geologic time, even in so-called ‘passive’ continental margins,” Simmons said. “Reconstructing long-term global sea-level change based on stratigraphic relations must account for this effect. In other words, did the water level change or did the ground move? This could have implications on understanding very long-term climate change.”

The mantle is not a passive player in determining long-term sea level changes. Mantle flow influences surface topography, through perturbations of the dynamic topography, in a manner that varies both spatially and temporally. As a result, it is it difficult to invert for the global long-term sea level signal and, in turn, the size of the Antarctic Ice Sheet, using east coast shoreline data.

Simmons said the new results provide another powerful piece of evidence that mantle flow is intimately involved in shaping the Earth’s surface and must be considered when attempting to unravel numerous long-term Earth processes such as sea-level variations over millions of years.

Origins of sulfur in rocks tells early oxygen story

Sedimentary rocks created more than 2.4 billion years ago sometimes have an unusual sulfur isotope composition thought to be caused by the action of ultra violet light on volcanically produced sulfur dioxide in an oxygen poor atmosphere. Now a team of geochemists can show an alternative origin for this isotopic composition that may point to an early, oxygen-rich atmosphere.

“The significance of this finding is that an abnormal isotope fractionation (of sulfur) may not be linked to the atmosphere at all,” says Yumiko Watanabe, research associate, Penn State. “The strongest evidence for an oxygen poor atmosphere 2.4 billion years ago is now brought into question.”

The researchers, who also include James Farquhar, associate professor of geology, University of Maryland and Hiroshi Ohmoto, professor of geoscience, Penn State, present the possibility that the rocks with an anomalous sulfur isotope fractionation came from locations on the ocean floor where hydrothermal fluids seeped up from submarine vents through organic carbon rich sediments and mixed with the ocean water. Watanabe used laboratory experimentation to test their theory and report on the results in today’s (Apr. 17) issue of Science.

Chemical elements often have more than one form. While the number of protons and electrons are all the same, the element may have forms with a greater or lesser number of neutrons and consequently a different atomic weight. Sulfur has four naturally occurring isotopes none of which are radioactive. Although 95 percent of sulfur has an atomic weight of 32, the other 5 percent is composed of sulfur with atomic weights of 33, 34 or 36. The relationship between the amounts of 33, 34 and 36 are predictable based on the differences in their weights, but in the early rocks examined, the relationship was often anomalous. Other scientists have previously determined that the sulfur dioxide, ultraviolet light reaction in the absence of oxygen can produce the anomalous isotope fractionation.

Watanabe looked at samples of amino acids and sodium sulfur compounds to try to recreate the anomalous sulfur isotope composition in another way. She chose amino acids as a proxy for organic material because the anomalous sulfur isotopes often come from sedimentary rock, black shale, that also contains abundant mature kerogen — a mixture of organic compounds. She chose sodium compounds because of the large amounts of sodium and sulfate in the ocean.

Initial experiments used two amino acids — alanine and glycine — and sodium sulfite, which is less oxidized compared to sulfate. When heated, these did not produce abnormal fractionation. Watanabe then tested five amino acids, adding histidine, arginine and tryptophan, and mixed them with sodium sulfate. In this case, alanine and glycine produced the anomalous isotope composition found in the rocks. In all, she ran 32 series of experiments with more than 100 individual samples.

“At high temperatures it sometimes took 24 hours for the sulfate to reduce to sulfide,” said Watanabe. “At lower temperatures it took about two months, 1,000 hours. I ran the experiments until I had enough product to test the isotopic distribution.”

Although Watanabe captured the sulfur from the experiments as hydrogen sulfide gas, she converted it to silver sulfide for analysis because it is easier to work with a solid than a gas.

“People never thought that anomalous sulfur isotope fractionation could be caused by a process other than atmospheric reactions,” said Ohmoto. “Our study significantly shifts possibilities to something different, to a biological and thermal regime. There are now at least two ways that the anomalous sulfur isotope fractionation seen in some rocks could be achieved.”

While sulfate-reducing bacteria do not produce anomalous isotope relationships, the remains of simple organisms coupled with thermal sulfate reduction does produce the anomalous isotope signature.

The researchers plan to look at dead cyanobacteria — blue green algae — next to see if their organic material will fuel the thermal reaction to produce anomalous sulfur isotope relationships.