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Earth scientists to expand studies of ocean margins
STANFORD --Two-thirds of the human population live near a coastline. The environments of the ocean, the land and the atmosphere all interact in coastal regions. Coastlines like California's are visible markers of the margins of continents as they jostle and grind along the surface of the earth.
The sediments that collect along the shore contain a record of those interactions - changes in climate, disruptions of the land, the rise and fall of sea level, plus human activities like deforestation or the growth of a new industry like the Bay Area's Silicon Valley.
So it is not surprising that the subject of coastlines came up when the faculty of Stanford's School of Earth Sciences was challenged to expand its base of research in a new direction that fits in with the university's overall initiatives in environmental science, technology and policy.
The result is the school's new Ocean Margins Initiative, which officially begins this fall with a search for three new faculty members whose billets have been approved by the provost. They will be supported by a donor's bequest that also will provide fellowship support for graduate students and teaching assistants.
The initiative represents "a significant opportunity to create a program unlike any that exists now, in a research area of great scientific importance in the future," said Lynn Orr, dean of the School of Earth Sciences.
Other research institutions focus on "blue water" oceanography or on coastal studies that emphasize resource development or erosion control. Orr said that Stanford's program will focus instead on coastal geological processes as keys to environmental change, climate change, tectonics and other processes that affect human populations.
The three new faculty billets emerged out of a challenge presented to the earth scientists last January, when a visiting committee convened by Provost Condoleezza Rice issued its report on the status of the school and its teaching and research future.
The Earth Sciences faculty is "strong and doing cutting-edge research in their fields . . . and is moving forward in the right direction for those fields," the visiting committee found. However, the committee's report said, "there are several important areas of research in the geological sciences that are not represented by the current faculty. A significant number of people outside of the school consider these areas, particularly ocean and atmospheric sciences, to be important areas of future activity for the earth sciences as well as for Stanford."
Orr convened a faculty retreat to consider this and other challenges to the school and to earth scientists in general. "The idea that there might be new faculty resources generated an intense discussion of opportunities," he said. "We really talked about a whole slew of possibilities. We had a good time, and some of it was pretty wild, but then we began to focus on how we could make a modest number of appointments that would extend the reach of our scientific enterprise, but also generate good links across the campus and with organizations outside Stanford.
"The provost has made the point a number of times that Stanford is relatively small overall, and we compete with institutions that are much larger. We need to seek to leverage our activities in every way we can," Orr said.
A focus on ocean margins allows Earth Sciences to build on research strengths already present in its three departments, Orr said, while establishing a new program that should be able to achieve national leadership. It also allows for new educational possibilities, and new courses with an environmental emphasis for undergraduates as well as graduate students.
One reason for choosing to focus on coastal ocean geography was that the work of new faculty members could add to, and be strengthened by, on-land efforts in the fields that the school considers its strongest and most important for the future, Orr said. Well-recognized programs in geochemistry, hydrogeology, fluid flow within the earth's crust, sedimentary systems and continental dynamics all offer resources for the study of ocean margins.
"We have primarily been an on-land kind of outfit," said Orr. "Jim Ingle [a geologist who conducts ocean-drilling studies in the Sea of Japan] has been the exception that proves the rule. However, the idea of looking at the links between oceans and continents ties in with work we already do.
"We're also looking for ways to build and leverage a connection with other Stanford departments and other institutions," Orr said. He mentioned the marine biologists at Hopkins Marine Station in Monterey, the groundwater remediation specialists in civil engineering and the environmental policy specialists at the Institute for International Studies.
Opportunities to collaborate
The initiative also allows for collaborations with scientists outside Stanford, such as those at the U.S. Geological Survey and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI).
Scientists from MBARI already collaborate with Stanford faculty in several departments, and act as mentors to graduate and undergraduate student researchers. Orr is a member of MBARI's board of directors, as is Dennis Powers, director of Hopkins Marine Station. The research institute's fleet of undersea vehicles provides "unparalleled access" to the deep undersea features of Monterey Canyon, Orr said.
Powers welcomed the added cooperation between Hopkins and Earth Sciences. He pointed out that Monterey Bay is now home to more than a dozen university, government and private research institutions concerned with marine science, marine geology, environmental policy and weather.
"If we can all collaborate in a way that is synergistic, greater than the sum of its parts, we could provide a whole new frontier of exciting scientific discovery," Powers said. "I think Stanford should be a leader in that. If the Earth Sciences departments could complement the work at Hopkins and work with scientists from around the country, I think we could be a force to be reckoned with."
One of the strongest faculty proponents of the new initiative has been geological and environmental sciences Professor Donald Lowe. He predicted that the fresh new ideas brought in by ocean margins faculty will help take Stanford's earth scientists in a direction that many already have begun: toward a study of the human condition as reflected in the geological record.
To illustrate, Lowe chose an example from his own field of sedimentary geology. A study of the sediments built up in San Francisco Bay mud, he said, would reflect the waxing and waning of the ice ages; changes in atmosphere and climate; disruptions caused by earthquakes . . . and also the first burning of carbon fuels by humans; the erosion of the Sierra by 19th-century gold miners; the era of Coca-Cola in glass bottles; and the effects of industrial runoff from Silicon Valley companies.
"By combining a study of ocean margin materials with an appreciation of the human effect, we may develop a better understanding of pollution and climate change," Lowe said. He said the new faculty members would be evaluated not only by the quality of their science but by their ability to apply the results of their own work to problems of the environment.
"We may be hoping for more than we can find, but young scientists tend to be idealistic. This is an ideal field for a young scientist," Lowe said.
He said the traditional emphasis of earth scientists is changing, a fact reflected in the new name chosen two years ago when the school combined its departments of geology and applied earth sciences into the department of geological and environmental sciences. The department includes researchers with a strong environmental bent, such as hydrogeologists Irwin Remson and Steven Gorelick, and others who have turned the sophisticated tools of organic geochemistry to look at environmental pollutants.
However, Lowe said, it remains a challenge for "hard-core" geologists to integrate environmental studies into their work. "We realize this is important for our profession," he said. "This is where our future lies."
Lowe's concern about the need for new directions in the earth sciences was echoed in the January report by the provost's visiting committee. Employment opportunities for earth scientists are declining in university and government research laboratories, as well as in the oil industry. Meanwhile, the committee noted, "employment opportunities will probably increase in environmental areas, hazard studies, remediation and hydrology."
New faculty with an environmental bent also may help address another of the visiting committee's concerns: that the school should participate more in undergraduate education; for example, in the science core for non-science majors recommended by the Commission on Undergraduate Education. The committee also was critical of the fact that the undergraduate Earth Systems major is housed in Earth Sciences, but "the Earth Sciences faculty is not fully engaged in this program."
Earth Systems has been a successful addition to the undergraduate curriculum, growing to more than 100 declared majors since its founding in 1992. Jonathan Roughgarden, professor of biological sciences and geophysics and director of the program, described it as an interdisciplinary environmental major with a focus on ecological systems at regional to global scales. "The concept is that there are vital interconnections between the solid and fluid components of the earth as well as between the biological and social components," he said.
To not include a study of the oceans in this mix is the equivalent of teaching biology without genetics, Roughgarden said. "The School of Earth Sciences is good on solid earth, but that's only a piece of the pie. There is a large student demand for more coverage of oceans and atmospheres," he said.
"It's an incredibly smart move by the provost to award billets in this area," said Roughgarden. "Three well-placed hires will improve the university's standing [in geological sciences] as well as quell students' complaints about the inadequacy of the [Earth Systems] program. The rest of the university can see how putting scarce billets into this area will benefit the whole."
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