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Stanford Report, September 24, 1997

Part II - Earth Sciences metamorphosing again: 9/24/97

Continuation of Earth Sciences article -- see previous page

Geological and environmental sciences

As chair of the department of geological and environmental sciences, Gail Mahood has the enviable task of welcoming the first three of the new crop of faculty.

One is Pamela Matson, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a MacArthur "genius" fellow, who arrived this month to take a joint professorship in geological and environmental sciences and the Institute for International Studies (IIS). She comes partly as a result of that "reaching out" that Orr says the earth scientists are learning to do. He teamed up with Walter Falcon, director of IIS, to persuade the provost to tempt Matson away from the University of California-Berkeley. A biogeochemist who studies the cycling of nitrogen through soil, water and air, Matson also works on the agricultural practices and policies that can create large-scale, man-made disruptions of this fundamental cycle.

The first ocean margins professor is Robert Dunbar from Rice University. Dunbar uses the tools of paleogeography and geochemistry to study climate change. He is using the growth bands of corals, similar to tree rings, to chart Pacific Ocean temperatures over the past 600 years, and he leads a project in Antarctica to study how meteorological forces influence sea ice distribution.

Assistant Professor Trevor Ireland has come from the University of New Zealand to supervise the ion probe, in conjunction with Professor Mike McWilliams. Among Ireland's interests: cosmogeochemistry. He studies stardust, using the ion probe to identify materials that were formed outside the solar system.

Both Matson and Dunbar will teach in the Earth Systems program. Mahood said their scientific work ­ and Ireland's ­ also bridges two areas of current strength in the GES department: the geochemists who use nuclear magnetic resonance, synchrotron radiation and other tools to probe the history of various kinds of formations, and the sedimentary geologists who study how ancient soil and marine basins turned to rock.

Mahood said there were good reasons why the departments of geology and applied earth systems merged in 1993 into a department named geological and environmental sciences. One is the realization that environmental processes ­ and solutions to environmental problems ­ are important questions for earth scientists to tackle. "Many of the big breakthroughs in the future will come from studying the interface between biological systems and the rocks that support them," Mahood said. "We're just now beginning to learn how many processes, even deep within the earth, are catalyzed by organisms."

Another reason for the emphasis is that GES already includes a strong environmental component, particularly in hydrogeology, where Steven Gorelick, Keith Loague and Professor Emeritus Irwin Remson carry on a tradition started in the 1930s by groundwater pioneer Cyrus Tolman. Most other faculty also have developed an environmental cast to some of their work: Gordon Brown, for example, uses his expertise in the geochemistry of minerals to answer questions about soil contamination, and Mahood's knowledge of volcanic granites has proved valuable in analyzing the cause of acid lakes in the Sierra Nevada.

Geophysics: poised for breakthroughs

In the midst of change, the school also has been successful because it has stayed the course on its best work, according to geophysics department chair Amos Nur and Mark Zoback, who turned over the chairmanship to Nur on Sept. 1. Nur says that the high standing of Stanford's geophysics department is rising higher as their colleagues elsewhere recognize the value of working with industry ­ an approach that academic geophysicists once snubbed. Led by Jon Claerbout, a pioneer in seismic imaging, the geophysicists have well-established scientific collaborations with researchers from industry ­ gaining data from oil exploration, for example, and adding their scientific perspective to help solve real-world problems of reservoir engineers.

Stanford geophysicists pioneered the study of plate tectonics and the evolution and movements of the earth's crust ­ work that directly applies to earthquakes, volcanoes and other hazards for those of us who live on the San Andreas Fault and similar borders of tectonic plates. The scientists continue to expand the technology that can be used to understand the Earth's movements. "We are poised to take advantage of breakthroughs in technology that can lead to breakthroughs in science," Zoback said.

The most recent example is the 1995 arrival of Howard Zebker, an associate professor with a joint appointment in geophysics and electrical engineering. Zebker's synthetic aperture radar technique allows him and his geophysics colleagues to monitor complex movements of earthquake faults and volcanoes from satellites.

Petroleum engineers; managing a limited resource

Petroleum engineering chair Roland Horne said his department is gearing up for another "boom" after a dozen years of "bust" in the perennially cycling oil industry. "Our graduate student offices were empty this summer," he said. "Even graduate students who didn't want summer jobs were being tugged at the elbow by oil companies." During the long industry slump, some petroleum engineering departments closed their doors, Horne said.

However, Stanford petroleum engineers' research, and their graduates, have remained in demand by aiming to lead the world in reservoir simulation and geostatistics. The scientists analyze and make images of the complicated structure of oil and gas reservoirs to find ways to extract more of a dwindling and finite resource. One mark of the department's leadership: a student body that is 80 percent international, as governments from around the world send their brightest young engineers to Stanford.

The department is seeking another faculty member who works on advanced reservoir simulation. In addition, it is expanding on the use of this technology for environmental purposes. Associate Professor Martin Blunt uses reservoir simulation technology to gauge the flow of environmental contaminants. And Horne leads the department's geothermal energy program; the job of harnessing steam from the earth, pioneered by the late Professor Hank Ramey, is now an international concern, with projects as far away as the Philippines. SR